CASEY DRIESSEN: “Playing with Guts” Workshop Transcript – Part 2 of 2

Author: | Filed under: Getting On Stage, Great Performances, In The Zone, Musician Resources, Workshops

Driessen

[Photo Credit: Sandlin Gaither]

While I was in Kansas City, MO teaching a live performance master class at a Folk Alliance International annual conference, I attended a workshop presented by one of my all-time favorite fiddle players, Grammy®-nominated recording artist CASEY DRIESSEN.

Casey’s workshop, which he called “Playing With GUTS!”, addressed stage fright and other issues that may get in the way of having a satisfying performance experience.  I recorded the workshop, and Casey graciously gave me permission to post a transcript of his remarks here.  What follows is the second of two installments of the transcript.

You can find additional information about Casey at the beginning of Part 1.  In that installment, he discusses such topics as messing up during a performance, what makes him feel more confident, and his insights from working in the studio.  In Part 2, Casey addresses the use of substances at gigs, taking compliments from fans, and how your instrument can work for you, among other things.  –VA

—————————————————————————

On being under the influence of substances while performing:

Substances are around – drugs, alcohol, marijuana, caffeine – you know, any number of things.  They affect everybody differently.  I think it’s important to understand for yourself how they affect you.  Some people can play great under the influence and you would never suspect that’s part of their equation.  I hope they’re conscious of how it affects them, and I know how substances affect me.

I’m generally very comfortable onstage.  I’m at peace up there.  Well, I was sitting in with a group in which all the guys in the group were pot smokers – and it’s a cloud of smoke out there in the audience.  It wasn’t my gig, I’m just sitting in.  So I thought, hey, if there’s ever a situation that’s safe – I’m going to go ahead and smoke before the show.  Then I got up there, and I was so paranoid.  I mean, like never before.  I’m usually pretty physically fluid when I play – but I could not move my feet.  I wanted to be anywhere else but playing and standing onstage right there.  It was so different than how I normally feel.  And I thought, when I got off the stage, “I am never doing this again.”  So I learned, the hard way, how my body reacted to it in a show setting.

Alcohol is another one I’m aware of.  Sometimes it can make you just a little bit more fluid.  Maybe it takes the edge off of the nervousness.  It’s just a fine line there – I have to be careful with it.  Did I have a decent dinner?  Did I eat dinner?  Is it going to hit me faster than if I ate some spaghetti or something heavy?  I enjoyed having that little edge taken off sometimes.  Right now, I don’t have a drink before my shows, because there’s a lot of technical accuracy with my whole body that I have to be in tune with – stepping on pedals at the right moment for the arrangement to happen.  I’m just not willing to take the chance that if it doesn’t go right, it was because I had a drink before the show.  So that’s a decision I’ve made for myself.  I’m learning, when is it ok and when is it not ok – for me, personally.

On the use of beta blockers for stage fright:

I’ve never tried them.  They are not necessarily “performance enhancing drugs” – they’re anxiety and stress relieving drugs.  And they do something with your hormones and the way your body reacts with adrenaline.  I hear that a lot of classical musicians take them before big performances. They’re supposed to kind of help you not be shaky or nervous or sweaty – your fight/flight type of responses.  They’re generally prescribed, though I was just reading a study saying twenty-five percent of orchestral people use them, however seventy percent of those that use them get them from their friends.  So, I don’t have any experience with them, but I know that lots of people do.

On what helps him feel more confident:

Preparation.  Practicing.  I get uptight for a gig a week out, even though I know I’ve got a week to work on this material – thinking, “[gasp] It’s a week out!  I’ve got to practice for this stuff!” Fear and worry are motivators for me to say, “Ok, it’s time to do some work on it.”  If there’s a specific performance which you know you’ve got material that is difficult for you, spend time on it.  If it doesn’t go well, you did the best that you could.  At least you spent time on it – that I can be ok with.  But if it doesn’t go well and I was not working on it, that is a situation that’s not acceptable, because I didn’t do anything to try and help myself for it.

Understanding the musical situation.  Are you nervous at jams?  Or are you nervous in gigs?  Is it worth being nervous?  Are you one of a bunch of people in which they’re not scrutinizing what you’re playing, where you’re just part of this fabric – is it worth getting uptight about?  Maybe it is, and maybe it isn’t.  But understanding the musical situation – what are the expectations of the other musicians?  What are the expectations of the audience?  Is it a wedding gig?  Are they there to dance?  Are they going to be drinking and just having a good time if the beat is there?  In that sort of situation, you might have a little bit more freedom to be a little more loose.  If it’s a sit-down concert and you’ve got a big solo section, that’s much different than playing a wallpaper gig.  So what’s worth your stress time?  You can’t stress about all the gigs, you know – but hopefully not.

The more that you put yourself in difficult situations, the easier those situations are going to get.  It’s usually the first one that is the toughest.  Maybe the first five of this new music you’re working on, or this new group that you’re playing with.  But it’s going to be ok, you know?  This is not the ER – we’re just playing some music here for people.

This one jazz pianist, he was addressing this type of situation.  You know, you’ve got your solo, and you think, “Oh, I just fucked up my solo…”  Ok, wait a minute here, let’s think about this.  It feels really important, because people are at this club to see you, and maybe there’s eighty people there, maybe there’s two thousand – whatever.  So you just “screwed” up this solo.  Ok, well, let’s back up for a second.  Let’s zoom out.  You are one guy in this city in which there’s all these other musical things going on.  Back up again, ok, now you are in a city within a state full of other cities.  Back up again, you’re in this country full of states full of cities full of people.  Back up again – I mean, it’s like, really?  Is that one solo is going to make or break anybody?  Hey, so it didn’t go.  You can’t win ‘em all.  But it’s really not worth stressing about.

On taking a compliment:

I’ve played for people who got really stressed out after gigs.  This stuff really affected them – you know, whether performances went well or not.  People would compliment after the show, and the performer would say something like, “Oh, that was not a good show.”

I mention this because I think you have to be really careful in these situations, because the audience is paying you a compliment.  You did something for them.  You connected.  And by responding, “No, this was not a good show,” you’re effectively saying, “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”  Or like, “Your feelings right now are invalid, and you just liked something that totally sucked.”  You just shot down a compliment from somebody.  Suck it up, if you can!  Or remove yourself from the situation.  But I think you have to be careful about letting the frustration that you might feel be poured out to the people that actually did have a good time.  So ok, even though it wasn’t ideal for me, there must be something going on here – I’ll take this compliment.

On making your instrument work for you:

There are a lot of things that you can do to your instrument that are going to make you feel better about the way you play.  You can apply this to whatever instruments you have, but keeping your instrument maintained – I know it costs money, but it’s going to make it easier for you to play.  And there’s enough hard stuff about playing any instruments – they’ve all got their difficulties – why make it any harder?

For me, one thing is string action.  How high are your strings off the fingerboard?  That makes a big difference.  How hard do you have to press here in order to get the notes out?  There’s a range – too low, too high – but there’s a nice middle ground that also affects the tone.  Not only how it feels, but, a little higher action, a little bit louder, a little bit brighter.  And so if you need something to kind of cut through a little bit more – cutting through can equate with confidence – maybe experiment with the action on your instrument.

For guitars and fretted instruments – frets.  Frets get grooves in them from playing which affects the intonation and the way that you can slide on the strings.  Get your frets dressed.  With bowed instruments, you get ruts in your fingerboard.  You’ve got to get your fingerboard planed.  When I get it planed, I think, “Oh, it’s so much easier and more in tune!”

Putting on new strings – that makes a huge difference for intonation and tone.  These things don’t stretch evenly as a whole.  Sometimes I feel like, “I just can’t seem to play in tune, but I used to be able to.  What is going on?  The instrument’s in tune…”  Well, the strings have stretched a little bit differently.  And when I put on a new set of strings, I realize, “Oh, right.  I don’t suck as much as I thought.  It was the strings.  Maintain my instrument!”

Fresh hair on the bow – it helps grip a little bit better.  It gives you a wider range that you can play with dynamically.  It makes you more articulate.

How heavy your pick is – if it’s really light, it might be easier to play, but it might not produce as much sound.  And you might feel like you’re having to work harder to get it out.  Try some different pick gauges and shapes to see what happens.

We experiment with these mechanical details on our instruments to find this nice middle ground that allows us to be expressive and not hinder our instruments physically.  It’s important to get your instrument maintained once in a while.  I go into music shops and I say, “Hey, you’re an expert at making an instrument sound better.  What can I do to make my instrument sound better?”  Because things gradually change over time, you may not have noticed a slow degradation.

I had a luthier tell me, “Oh, you know what would be better for you?  Your instrument would sound better if you used a different shoulder rest.”  And I thought, “What?  The shoulder rest makes a difference in the sound of my fiddle?”  He said, “Hold on a sec.  Let me show you something.”  So he went and got this shoulder rest which is light, stiff, made of wood, and it doesn’t really clamp far onto the instrument.  I had a heavier one, and I was clamping it way down the body.  He said, “Just put it on there just as much as you need to, to make it stay.”  And my instrument was more lively.  I heard a difference!  And as a result, I felt better when I was playing.  “Cool, my instrument’s sounding good!”  You feel good, and then you’re happier to be playing.

I would have never thought of that myself.  I had to go in and have somebody who is an expert to look at these things and say, “I think this might help the sound of your instrument.”  It will help build your own confidence because you’ll be happy to play your instrument, as opposed to, “I’m just not getting enough back from my instrument, I just don’t want to play it.”

On what he’s learned from playing with Tim O’Brien:

Tim is one of the most relaxed people I’ve ever been around.  He’s such a relaxed singer and player, too.  He seems to open his mouth, and he has this range and delivery that seems to go wherever he wants.  I’ve come to believe that whatever kind of person you are is reflected in the way that you play your music.  So, Tim has such nice loose hands.  They’re not loose as in sloppy and all over the place – it’s just this really fluid sound to everything he does.  And he’s a relaxed guy.

I believe you have to evaluate yourself, too, and understand that your instrument is an extension of your personality.  When you’re nervous, somehow that’s going to come out.  Your playing exudes that a little bit.  Whatever you can do to calm yourself down – if you want to be more calm – give it a try.  But if you want to be more aggressive with what you’re playing, maybe you need to read some bad news or something like that – really get pissed off!  Whatever you feel, whoever you are, you exude.

In conclusion:

You’re not alone in wanting to play more confidently, with more guts – I’m right there with you.  So have fun, and don’t be afraid to put yourself in some uncomfortable situations and enjoy them!

Thanks again to Casey for sharing his thoughts in his workshop, and for giving me permission to publish them on this blog.  I definitely recommend to my readers that they see Casey live if they have a chance.  His “Singularity” show, in particular, is practically a high-wire act, and his musicality and virtuosity are inspiring.  –VA


CASEY DRIESSEN: “Playing with Guts” Workshop Transcript – Part 1 of 2

Author: | Filed under: Getting On Stage, Great Performances, In The Zone, Musician Resources, Workshops

Driessen

[Photo Credit: Sandlin Gaither]

While I was in Kansas City, MO teaching a live performance master class at a Folk Alliance International annual conference, I attended a workshop presented by one of my all-time favorite fiddle players, Grammy®-nominated recording artist CASEY DRIESSEN.  

Casey’s workshop, which he called “Playing With GUTS!”, addressed stage fright and other issues that may get in the way of having a satisfying performance experience.  I recorded the workshop, and Casey graciously gave me permission to post a transcript of his remarks here.

A highly sought-after touring musician, session player, educator, and producer, Casey is known for his fiery, percussive playing style and his way of stretching musical boundaries.  He has performed with such artists as Béla Fleck, Steve Earle, Tim O’Brien, Jim Lauderdale, Lee Ann Womack, and Chris Thile.  The artists he has recorded with include Darol Anger, John Mayer, Jerry Douglas, Jamey Haddad, and Blue Merle.  He also played on the soundtrack for the Johnny Cash biography film Walk the Line

Casey’s album The Singularity (Red Shoe Records) showcases his inventive live-looping/pedalboard technique which he regularly utilizes in his concerts.  You can watch this video of Casey’s TEDx talk to see his demonstration of this technique.

This transcript will be posted in two installments.  –VA

—————————————————————————

[Casey began the workshop by singing “Country Blues” while accompanying himself on the fiddle.  When the song was finished, he talked about what he experienced while playing it.]

Well, I started to think about this class, and then I immediately forgot the lyrics that I was supposed to sing.  And then I started thinking about how I forgot the lyrics, and then I skipped a set of verses.  And then I started thinking about being able to focus when you’re playing – losing track of that focus, it ends up being a detriment to me.

On distractions:

I’m trying to do my best to focus on the music, and I end up closing my eyes when I play because I’m so visually distracted.  I see movement here, I recognize somebody in the audience that I haven’t seen for a long time, and then I just start thinking about other items as opposed to what I’m really supposed to be doing.  And so I’ve found that, for me, closing my eyes helps me focus my ears on the musical situation. It’s a way to cut out some of that distraction.

And then I go through this thing where I think, well, if I’m closing my eyes, am I putting up a barrier between me and the people that I’m playing music for?  Because I think, well, what if I’m watching and somebody’s playing and they’re closing their eyes?  And I’m figuring, yeah, there might be a small bit of a barrier there.  But I’ve determined that I’m ok with that, because I feel like I’m going to make better music if I’m closing my eyes.  And it’s not that I’m hiding from anything – I can actually give more of myself to the music and to the people that are listening if my eyes are closed.  So that’s sort of the trade-off.  Hopefully, the music then translates, as opposed to just the eye contact translating and myself being less satisfied with what I’m playing.

On stage fright:

I started to think about stage fright – and how things affect my playing when I’m at gigs – a few years back.  And I realized that I don’t feel like musicians talk about this subject very much among themselves.  We’re supposed to be solid and strong and confident all the time, and we don’t really discuss this.  But I was curious – if I’m feeling this, certainly other musicians must be feeling similarly.

I’ve been playing the fiddle for 30 years, and I’ve been performing since I was 13, and I still have these situations where I get anxiety about a performance or a recording session.  So with that amount of experience behind me, if I’m feeling this way, certainly other people are feeling this way, too.  And my goal in this workshop is to help you realize that you’re not alone in this and share my experiences – things that have actually happened, that I’ve learned from.

There are two different categories of confidence, I believe.  There’s an emotional or mental confidence towards playing.  But then there’s also physically being more confident in your playing.  They’re tied together, for me, each affecting the sound that comes out of your instrument, and what you hear, and how you perceive your sound.

On audience reactions to a show:

So I thought I would start here by mentioning when I began to evaluate this subject for myself.  A great show, in my mind, where I’m super-satisfied with the performance, is that I nailed everything, flawlessly.  I was in tune, I was in time, I played the parts when I was supposed to, I was completely inside the music.  I mean, this rarely happens, but when it does, there’s this music happening and I’m just kind of floating on top of it and riding it – like there’s this effortless time.  And occasionally that does happen, but it’s few and far between.  There’s not a show, really, that doesn’t go by which I wish that something had gone differently.

Then there are shows in which a number of things didn’t go the way I wanted them to.  And I noticed that those were the shows that people seemed to react the most positively to.  The show that I was the least happy with, strangely everybody was, “That was great!”  “Oh, I really loved tonight.”  “Tonight was so…”  “That was one of the best shows that I ever…”, or, you know, whatever it is that they’re saying.  And here I’m thinking, “Oh, jeez, why does it have to be this show that they’re taking away with them?”

Meanwhile, the shows that are effortless, when that does happen, nobody seems to say anything.  What is going on here?  Why is this happening?

So my thought is that people react to emotion more than they react to technical wizardry. As an instrumentalist, a guy that practices as much as I can, I want to technically master this instrument and bring that execution to the musical situation.  But if it’s all lining up, you don’t hear anything kind of popping out.  If there’s a wrong note, or a scrape, or you forget something and so, God forbid, you rest for two seconds and then you come back in – it feels like an eternity to you because you forgot something and saying “[gasp] Oh shit, what am I going to do?” – well, my theory is that you’ve given the listener something that they can grab on to.

Tim O’Brien would joke about his tuning on stage and say, “I always thought if I played out of tune, people could hear me better.”  Well, there’s kind of something to that!  But the audience doesn’t necessarily hear these things as “out of tune” or “out of time” so much.  I think they can hear it as little things popping out above the bed of whatever the music is.  And for me, all of sudden when I’m struggling on something, and I might be bearing down because I’m frustrated, they see emotion, and they hear emotion, coming through the music.  Whereas when it’s effortless, there’s emotion there, but there’s this “sailing” thing that I don’t think rises above, and percolates in and out of, the bed of music that’s happening. That’s why when the show doesn’t go great for me, they’re seeing emotion, and emotion is being translated through the music.

I feel like there’s a threshold where if you improve technically beyond this threshold, the main people that are going to hear it, really – maybe, if they hear it – are going to be other musicians.  The non-musically inclined population – once you hit this certain point and you get better, more in tune, faster, whatever – I don’t think it affects them to the same extent.

On messing up during a performance:

It adds an element of humanity.  We are all human.  I would love to be a machine, but try as I might, I am not a machine.  It’s just not possible.

I do a solo show now which includes effects pedals and live looping.  It all happens live – nothing’s pre-recorded.  I’m playing, trying to play it well, because once I record and loop it, I’ve got to hear it over and over.  I hear the good stuff, I hear the bad stuff.  In the beginning when I’m working on a new tune, and even sometimes on one that I’ve been playing for a long time, I will make a mistake in it. Then, depending on the severity of the mistake, I have to erase the loop that I was working on and start over – and when I first started this solo concept, I was bummed by the thought of having to stop and start over.  It was like, “Wow, I just screwed that up, and now I’ve got to stop.”  All of a sudden I’m showing my human face to everybody.

I realized that after those shows, I’d be beating myself up, but people would say, “That was great how you had to restart, because I actually couldn’t tell what you were doing, that it was happening right now.”  It helped people understand what was going on, just because I had to stop and start over.  Unexpectedly, it ended up being a good thing – it helped the show out.  So I thought, well, jeez, now should I plan a screw-up in there?  But I thought, that’s playing with fire – then I’m going to screw up the screw-up!

We’re so focused on ourselves. It’s important to remember nobody hears you more than you hear yourself.  Really.  Nobody knows what you intended to play.

This is one idea I like to remind myself of.  If I made a mistake, tell me I made a mistake.  How does anyone know what I was intending to play?  They’re not inside my head.  Maybe I wanted it to sound like that!  Nobody really knows.  And that’s why I think lots of times these things, these mistakes, feel like they last forever for musicians, because we know what we wanted to come out.  We know what we were going for.  We didn’t hit it, we’re bummed out, but it was probably just fine.  I’ll listen back to shows, remembering things that I just didn’t feel sounded great, and find myself thinking, “What was I…I don’t really hear…yeah, maybe that was it?  But that’s fine…”

On keeping a things fresh and exciting:

I think you have to keep doing things that are challenging – as humans, but certainly as musicians.  You want to improve, you want to get better, and you have to do new material in order to do that.  Whenever I have to do a new looping song – oh boy, it messes with me because if I don’t press the pedals in this right order, then it throws the whole arrangement off.  But you get better with repetition.  And it keeps you on your toes, literally!  I like that.  I need that.  It might not be easy the first time around, but it gets better.

Just like you’ve been doing your tunes forever – they get better over time.  However, you might need to say, “I’m tired of this arrangement on this song.  I’m sort of bored.”  Well, maybe you need to switch an arrangement around on it, you know?  Find something new to do with the same tune.  And then in early performances, you might end up with half the band going to the old arrangement while half do the new arrangement, and then you’re going to have to figure out what’s going on!  But what might feel like a train wreck to us, generally I don’t think feels like a train wreck to the audience, for the most part.  And even if it does – the element of humanity, you know?  You’re the ones onstage.  You’re the ones performing.  People are not coming to, really, judge you – they’re coming to support and to hang out with you.

On what makes him nervous:

I get the most nervous whenever I have family and friends in the audience.  In reality, who should have my back the most?  Who should be on my side the most but my family and my friends?  And they are, and I know that.  But still, those are the shows that I find myself getting worked up about.  “Oh, my mom’s here.  Oh, my ex-girlfriend is here.  I’ve got to be really good for this one!”

Another situation I get nervous for are small shows.  I’ve done shows where it’s me and you guys.  That’s interesting, because I think the audience also has a little bit of nervousness about their own presence in the room.  Like, “If I clap too loud, or if I holler ‘Wooo!’ because I liked something, everyone knows that just came from me!”  But when you’re in this massive crowd like at a festival, you can sort of be invisible, right?  If this was the club that I played in Grand Junction where it was me playing for the opening band, the staff, and one drunk heckler – they’re probably uncomfortable for me, I’m uncomfortable for them because I know they’re uncomfortable – I don’t know what to do about it other than just think, “You’re going to have to go through some of these situations and just play.”  Maybe then it’s good to close my eyes so I’m just thinking about playing my music.

On getting into the right space for a recording session:

Recording sessions are interesting, because it really is a different situation than playing live.  With live, a lot of things are excused by listeners because of the added visual stimulus.  If they’re watching a performer, they’re seeing somebody move to the music, they’re watching the drummer, they’re dancing, whatever – they’re not just focused solely on the music that’s happening.  So you can get away with a lot, really.  With the recording session, that’s all that’s there.  The audio is the sole focus.

For recording sessions you have to make sure you can hear yourself well, perhaps more than in live playing, while still hearing the other musicians well enough that you feel like you’re part of the musical situation.

I tend to be, maybe, a little bit more careful.  Some people are a lot more careful with how they play – taking less risks.  You know when you’re taking a risk, stretching for something.  You have to evaluate, do we have time to sit here and work on something if I am screwing up, if I’m playing a difficult part?  Am I just overdubbing, or am I tracking live with the band?  Is there isolation to allow me to replay my part?  It’s really a case-by-case type of situation, but I would tend to be a little less risky with my choices if there’s a time constraint in the studio.  And lots of times there is, because it’s costing money the longer that you’re at the studio.

On input from the producer in a recording session:

Sometimes you have to let people work through ideas and challenging spots for a bit.  And even if you think you have an answer that will help them right away, it might not be the best thing to just tell them what to do, because then you run the risk of shutting somebody’s creative juices down.  I’ve been shut down before, but usually you get a chance to try something out.  If improvising is not your strong suit, work out some notes that really sound good.  And don’t be afraid to rest, either – that’s one thing we often forget, we don’t have to play all the time.  It makes your content more meaningful when you actually do play something if you’ve taken time to rest.  It can be more tasteful.

I make notes in producing situations, notes about something that I want to come back to, that I don’t want to forget, but when now’s not quite the right time to mention it.  I want to give the musicians a couple more chances to get the part, because who knows, they may surprise me with something I was not expecting, and that’s great.  As long as there’s some sort of constructive contribution – not, “Don’t do that.”  But, instead, “Hey, I don’t think that note is working, try this one instead.”  You know?  As long as you have some sort of solution, as opposed to, “That’s not working.  I don’t know what to tell you.  You’ve got to figure it out.”

Having somebody produce is really helpful, because it’s so hard to evaluate yourself within a musical situation.  Sometimes when producing I need to say, “Ok, let’s take a break, everybody come in and let’s listen to the last three takes.  Let’s talk about them and let’s see what actually is happening.”  That way everybody can re-evaluate what they were playing, and listen without instruments in hand.

You might realize, “Oh, you know what?  I thought that was working…”  Maybe you were just really proud of the cool thing you were doing, but it didn’t actually work with the rest of the group.  “Something’s not right there, it’s not working.  Ok, so I need to not do that.  Okay, I’ll pat myself on the back for doing something cool, but it’s really about this whole musical situation, so I’ll need to make a change.”  You have to step back from it in order to really evaluate.  That’s what a producer can help you do.  And producers, lots of times, are listening for emotion, too.

I think we just get focused on ourselves.  We’re so concerned.  But, when you listen to the other people that are around you, maybe you don’t need to play as much.  Conveniently, you’re removing one element of difficulty for yourself.  And when you’re listening to the other musicians, you’re also getting inspiration from them, too – you’re getting ideas.  So it’s really important to hear other people, and remember that it’s about everybody playing together.  There might be a solo in it, but it’s ultimately about the music that you’re making as a group.

[To be continued…]


CONVERSATIONS WITH PERFORMERS: Julia Sweeney – Part 2 of 3

Author: | Filed under: Getting On Stage, Great Performances, In The Zone, Interviews

I am very pleased to present Part 2 of my conversation about performance with actress/comedienne/writer/director JULIA SWEENEY.  

Julia is probably most identified with her 1990-1994 run on Saturday Night Live (most famously playing the gender-indeterminate character “Pat”), as well as her one-woman shows, the best known of which are God Said, “Ha!” and Letting Go of God.  Julia’s lengthy filmography includes Pulp Fiction and the recently released Monsters University, as well as such television shows as Frasier and Sex and the City, and she has also written for several TV shows including Sex and the City and Desperate Housewives.  Her latest book, If It’s Not One Thing, It’s Your Mother, was published by Simon & Schuster and is widely available.  Julia’s current project is a tour of “The Jill and Julia Show”, which teams her with singer/songwriter Jill Sobule in an evening of songs and monologues.  
This interview is being  posted in three weekly installments.  In Part 1, Julia discussed her development as a performer.  In Part 2, Julia talks about “the zone”, how she experiences the audience, and how Letting Go of God has affected her career.  –VA

I’m sure you can get into situations where things just become transcendent.

Julia Sweeney:  Oh, yeah!

People talk about the zone, and I’m sure you get into that.  How do you experience the zone?  What kinds of conditions contribute to that for you?

JS:  First of all, really, I realized that improvisation is so much a young person’s game.  I swear, I’m not just making excuses for me not being so good at it!  But knowing what I’m going to do, knowing how the story goes and which parts to tell, and being on top of it, is really important.  Although I think there are definitely times when I get onstage and I’ll start talking about something that literally just happened to me in the dressing room and it will work great.  It feels very high and fantastic and the audience is laughing and responding, and they’ll often say, “Oh, that moment was so great.”  But it’s hard for me to even know if that’s the zone or not, or if that’s just this one great accident that happened.  I don’t even know about that.  I can’t articulate that in my mind.

But I know when I think of my favorite moments performing, I basically think of two of the monologues I did, “God Said Ha!” and “Letting Go of God”, when the run had been going for long enough that people were trying to get in – I was selling out, so that always feels good – and I really knew the show, but I hadn’t been doing it so long that I was now so sick of the show.  And I’d have moments where I felt like I was completely engaged with everything I said and I just had the audience in the palm of my hand, and I could control the silences.  To me, that’s a sign of the zone, not so much controlling the laughs but controlling the silences.  That’s another way to control the audience.  And it felt like, oh my god, it’s the greatest feeling you could ever have.  Even though I am now saying, “And I’ve had it! I’ve had that feeling.  Now let’s have some other feelings.”  [laughs]

Do you feel like you have mastery over your craft in terms of what you’ve been doing so far?

JS: [laughs]  No!  I feel like I have a lot of experience, and I kind of haphazardly put it together, and sometimes it’s great, and mostly it’s good.  And sometimes it’s horrible, and that it feels very herky-jerky in my mind.  Like I feel like I’m not [actress] Anna Deavere Smith.  Like I’m like, [awkwardly] “And now, I take a step to the right…”  Her control is incredible.  I don’t feel that way.  I feel like, [shakily] “I’ve got a paintbrush, and I’ve got some paint, and I kinda know what the colors are, I kinda know what I’m painting…”  [laughs]

I would assume that you’ve changed as a performer over the years in terms of your confidence in your skill set and knowing what works?

JS:  Well, I think just being calm.  I think, actually, from the audience’s point of view, the audience really can sense when somebody’s nervous onstage.  And so I think just doing it a lot makes me really comfortable getting onstage, and so that really makes a big difference.  I mean, I definitely think you can get to that – you can get confident by just doing it a lot.  And also feeling like you know what you’re going to do.  You’re going to give them a show.  They’ve paid, and now you’re giving them a show.  And that calmness, I definitely learned.  At the beginning, I wasn’t calm, not for many years, and then I learned how to be calm onstage.

Yeah, I definitely see that.  There’s a centeredness, a groundedness.

JS:  Yeah, and you can feel an audience knows if people are too nervous.  And then they get nervous, and that’s just a killer for laughs.  So then you’re only getting nervous laughs, or sympathy laughs.  You want people to feel like they’re in the hands of somebody who knows what they’re doing.

Yeah, I talk to the people I work with about that all the time.  It’s like, you’ve got to take the audience by the hand and say, “This is where we’re going, and I’m going to take care of you , and it’s going to be ok.”

JS:  Right.

How do you experience the audience? And has that changed over the years, how you experience the energy coming from the audience?

JS:  Well, I don’t know if this is related, but this has just occurred to me that I have been waiting to tell someone this, so I’ll tell you.  [laughs]

Good!

JS:  It’s about experiencing the audience, really in an individual way.  Ok, so the lights are on and you see the audience, you can see a few faces in the front two or three rows, and you can’t see anyone after that because of the lights.  And I like that.  In fact, to me, I wish I couldn’t see anyone, because then I’d just imagine everyone loving me.  [laughs]  If you can see people and they’ve got a scowl on their face, it’s sometimes hard – and sometimes it’s not even a scowl, it’s only just their resting face is not a pleasant look.  And it can be just, you know, disquieting.

Anyway, this is really neither here nor there, but it’s just talking about experiencing the audience.  Sometimes I’ll see someone in the audience that reminds me of someone that I loved.  And so I saw this guy in the audience, an older guy, that looked like my dad, and my dad’s been dead ten years.  And he didn’t even look exactly like my dad, but he just had a way about him that was like my dad.  Like he was sort of balding, and he had these kind of cool glasses, you could tell that he was smart, but he was kind of slight, and he had this smile.   And it wasn’t like it was as creepy as I pretended that was my dad, but I guess my thought was, “Oh yeah, if my dad didn’t know me, and he had come to this show, he would have liked me in this show.”  I guess that’s what I was kind of thinking.  And that was really a dance in my head at that particular performance, you know – like he was there.

And this happens, I think – it’s not just a dad thing, but there’s other, like, aunts, or friends.  I can see people’s faces and I imagine their personalities, and then I want to please them, I’m glad to please them with my stories.  Like, they really get me, or they really get this, what I’m saying, and I don’t even have to explain it very much to this person, because they get it already.

Anyway, so this guy – I was just, like, “Oh, I’m just a revelation to him!”  You know, whatever compliment I’m giving myself to keep myself in this positive state while I’m doing the show.  [laughs]  And then at the end, the guy came up with a friend, because they were buying something, and the guy not only didn’t even speak any English, but there was something wrong with him.  He obviously didn’t get anything about my show.  There was nothing that I had fantasized about with his look that was true in any way.  It was so, like, “Oh my god, oh my god!  We just had a relationship, and you were not in it!”  [laughs]

Well, whatever works for you!

JS:  It’s true!  But anyway, whatever!

When you’re in an audience, what excites you or inspires you when you see a good performance?  What are the characteristics of it?

JS:  Well, I like things to be smart.  I like things to be witty and insightful.  And I really like a combination of irony and compassion.  There’s a way certain people – and I hope I’m like this, because I really do feel this way, but I can really see it especially amongst comedians, people who have it or don’t – where you can describe other people, because a lot of times in comedy you’re really making fun of other people, but you’re laughing, I wouldn’t say it as simply as “with them rather than at them”, but they’re funny but you have compassion for them.  They’re not being ridiculed, there’s like a more ironic compassion.  And I like that – I like that quality.  And immediately, if people have that, I like whatever they’re doing more.  And I think it’s one of the things that I liked about Jill.  I responded to her lyrics so strongly because I felt that was in there.  They were funny, but they weren’t superior.

I mean, I definitely can rant about things I hate in politics and stuff like that.  It’s not like I’m so approving of everyone – believe me, I’m not!  But, in general, I would say I try to have compassion.  There’s just so much funny stuff that you can laugh at but also have compassion for.  I think that some people are too derisive, even though I think there’s room for that, too, and there’s some people that do that who I like.  It’s not taking the edge off, either, and plus I think it can even be more poignant, and pointed, when you have compassion for them.  But it isn’t just making fun of other people, which is a simple way to say it, I guess.

Well, it sort of helps bring everyone into the universal truths of the human condition.

JS:  Yeah, I think so!  And even, sometimes, we do political stuff of people that I really think are doing harm to our country.  So that’s hard.  But I still try to keep an edge to it.  I’m like, [compassionately] “Oh, they don’t know.  They don’t know that global warming is not a hoax.  [laughs]  And I’m going to try really hard not to think of how they’re in charge of laws that can affect other people…”  Or something like that.  And to me there’s something funny about trying to have compassion for people like that.  There’s comedy there, too.

I think that’s what’s so moving about your show Letting Go of God, because you are earnestly on this journey of discovery, you’re not just writing everything off on a whim.  You go to enormous effort…

JS:  Right.

…you travel the world, and read all these thinkers, not just the Bible, and you’re really, truly, sincerely wrestling with this issue.  And you’re not saying that people who believe this stuff are fools, either.

JS:  Right.

And I think what resonates is that it really is based in this loving place.

JS:  Well, I do like to feel that mostly that’s eighty percent true – there’s twenty percent of me that hates everyone.  [laughs]  And I like that in other people, too.  So that’s my particular thing – I like that.

Did you ever worry about the repercussions of “coming out” as an atheist?

JS:  You know, it’s so funny, because everyone asks me that, and I always think, oh, well, first of all, if anything, people in L.A. were more horrified that I was religious at one time.  That was the part that was like, “Really?  You really…?  No way!”  [laughs]  So if I was endangering anything in L.A. when I first opened that show, it was that I let people know that at one time I was religious.  And that probably cost me some work.  [laughs]

But now that it’s been years, it’s interesting – I like to say that when I was doing that show, that was before the “atheist craze”.  [laughs]  And now I feel like in some ways I’ve been dismissed as “one of those people” – not by conservatives, who would always dismiss those people, and I don’t even care about them – but by what they consider to be an “open-minded, post-modern, modern thinker”, of being too rigidly dismissing religion.  And I really totally am not dismissing religion.  And I still have a lot of compassion for it, and I really understand why people like it.  And I feel I do get grouped with that and kind of put in a category with that.  And I feel that’s unfair, but the only way people would know that is if they watched my whole show, and most people don’t.  Most people are just going to know one or two things about you that is the headlines – they’re not going to read the things.  So I definitely get put into that category, and, I don’t know, I can’t do anything about it.

And I’ve been, on and off, writing a more expanded version of that as a book, and on some days I really think I’m going to finish it, and other days I’m just so tired of the topic.  But I don’t know if that will be rectified.  I mean, sometimes I feel like, “Oh, I should be out there more as the face of atheism because I’m not like those other people” – even though I’m still an atheist.  But, some part of me thinks, “I think all people will see is “Julia Sweeney, Atheist” [laughs] – and then they have their own preconceived notions of what that means.

Or “Julia Sweeney, Pat-slash-Atheist”.

JS:  You know, I had a friend who used to tease me and say, “First you were Pat, then you were Cancer Girl, then you were Atheist Lady!”  And I’d go, “That completely sums up my entire professional life.”  [laughs] I don’t know, I’m still coming to terms with what I think, but I think especially in this culture and the way the media is right now – and maybe it’s always been this way and I’ve gotten older, or maybe it’s just newly this way because of media outlets being so numerous and new – but it seems like people can’t know anything about you but one headline thing.  And I am just done with that.  Hence, the way that I will manifest that is by writing fiction.  [laughs]

I do have certain things that I talk about, like cancer, or religion, but I can’t seem to be big enough with it.  And frankly, I don’t even know if I want to, because I know what that would take, that people would understand the nuances of it in the popular culture.  I’m not talking about people who’ve actually taken the time to watch those shows.  I’m just talking about the zeitgeist of the popular culture – insofar as anyone even knows who I am anymore, by the way.  Which is fine, it’s just that they only know this one thing – “Oh, you’re an atheist.”  And they’re not going to take the time to know more, and I’m not even saying they should.  It’s just, you’re going to enter the popular culture, and you’re only going to get two words to say that are ever going to be attached to your name.  [laughs]  What are those two words?  And make sure you want those two words to be the right two words.  And if you don’t like it, don’t even go there!

It is too bad, because you’ve done so many different things.

JS:  Well, I’m not trying to seem complaining.  You know, actually, I just worked on this new website, and doing it was really therapeutic for me because I was, like, oh, this is what I’ve done.  Ok, so this is what I’ve done!  Wow, it’s so clear!  And, I’m satisfied with it.  I’m happy with what I did, and I’m happy that it still exists, that we live times when the media and the technology can make it still there.  But I also feel, like, in a transition phase, either transitioning to doing nothing [laughs] – I’m not sure yet – or transitioning to writing something different.

Clearly this is good timing for this interview about performance…

JS:  Yes, I know, I know!  But I do have a lot of experience performing.  Yeah, well, what are you gonna do?  [laughs]

[To be continued…]


CONVERSATIONS WITH PERFORMERS: Travis Book of The Infamous Stringdusters – Part 2 of 3

Author: | Filed under: Getting On Stage, Great Performances, In The Zone, Interviews, Musician Resources

The following is Part 2 of my conversation about performance with TRAVIS BOOK, upright bassist and vocalist for Compass Records recording artists The Infamous Stringdusters.

The Stringdusters’ album Laws of Gravity earned a 2018 Grammy® for Best Bluegrass Album.

I spoke with Travis in Lyons, Colorado.  

In this installment, Travis discusses getting into the zone, both as an individual performer and as a band. — VA

How do you experience the audience as a performer?  What does that energy feel like to you?

Travis Book:  It’s like a two-sided coin, where the audience is all of the experience on the one hand, like the most important thing, and then on the other hand, they kind of don’t matter at all.  And what I mean by that is that I don’t really take responsibility for their experience, and that’s the part of the coin where they don’t really matter – they don’t really matter to my experience.  They do affect what I do, because I do want to entertain them, and I want them to enjoy themselves.  And on the other hand, on the other side of the coin, they are every bit of the experience.  The more the audience is open and is with us and is present in the moment, the less they’re thinking about another show they saw that was better, or the band before that was better, or what they wish we would be playing – the more they’re just there and letting it wash over them.  And that might be talking to their friend, or it may be dancing.  It may be singing along, or it may be getting a beer.  But the more that they can just sort of be there and be enjoying themselves and just being in a positive head space, the better it is for us, and it’s everything for us.

We sort of stopped playing sit-down shows, because people would get in these comfy theater chairs, and they’d be totally digging it, but we couldn’t tell at all and there was nothing coming back.  You’d get done with a show and they’d stand up and they’d clap and they’d want an encore and they’d buy lots of records, but the whole experience wasn’t the same as when people are doing what they really want to do.  And a festival’s a prime example – at a festival, people can just sort of do their thing.

I taught this thing called “Getting Comfortable Onstage”, and I tell people, you know, you really owe it to yourself to figure out what you want your music to be like, or what kind of statement you want to make, and rehearse that, because that’ll help ease your nerves – being prepared is one part of it.  But then when you go up onstage, you have to understand that as long as you’re doing what you set out to do, or, rather, as long as you’re being present, playing music or acting or anything, you have to believe that what you’re doing has intrinsic value.  And if people don’t get it, if people bring their preconceptions in, or if it just hits them wrong, there’s nothing you can do about that.

I tell my students, if the audience doesn’t like it, well, fuck ‘em.  There’s nothing you can do about that.  The only thing you can maybe do is you can sell your soul to the devil of kitsch and cliché, and you can try to fire people up in some way that you’ve heard before, but if that’s not genuine to your experience, there’s nothing that you can do about the audience.

So that’s a really roundabout and confusing answer.  On one hand, I need the audience, absolutely, to be a hundred percent on the same page with me for us all to have a great experience, for it to reach its true potential.  But if the audience isn’t with me, if they don’t get it, it doesn’t really affect me anymore.  And that has been a revelation.  I mean, that’s just sort of a life philosophy, you know?  If people don’t like you, well, it has nothing to do with you.  And it’s absolutely the same thing when you go to perform.  As long as you’re true to who you are, if they don’t get it, that’s totally fine.  To each his own.

You’re in a situation where I would imagine that generally you’re showing up where people are psyched to see you, where the table is set for you in a nice way?

TB:  That’s true.

And it’s nice to get to that point in your band’s career.

TB:  Yeah, it’s easier to feel this way when you know that the people that hire you know what they’re getting, and most of the people that come to your show know what they’re getting.

You’re not struggling to win them over in any way.

TB:  We still play a ton of free shows in parks, or we play to tons of people that have never heard us before.  We’re just starting to get where people even know who we are.  But there’s still a lot of people out there that have not heard our band.  So there are still times where I have to combat that need to make people like it, or feel the pressure of having to succeed, having to play a great show.  Sometimes the shows aren’t that great.  But I always have a really good time.  That’s the only thing that I can control – I can prepare, and then I can have a really awesome time.

How easy is it for you to access the zone as a member of the band, and how easy is it for the band to access the zone?  Is that something that you can bring on, or does it just happen and you just have to enjoy it when it happens?  The more you tour together and play together, do you feel like more of that is within your control of bringing it on?

TB:  I see it as a practice, just like music is a practice or yoga is a practice, and it’s ongoing.  And it gets easier to identify the things that keep me from that space.

What are they?

TB:  Self-doubt.  Or expectation.  Or over-indulgence, you know?  I used to party really hard when I played, and I don’t as much anymore because it has the potential to sort of turn on me and make me real self-conscious.  It’s really just self-evaluation – it’s not being able to sort of be the listener.  Whenever I get outside myself, it’s really easy.  It’s sort of a tough question, but I think those are the things that get in my way.

So how do you experience the zone?  What does it feel like to you when it happens?

TB:  It’s just effortless – that’s the best way to describe it.

Do you appreciate it when it’s happening?

TB:  Oh yeah.

And do you notice a difference in how you’re working with your band mates when it happens?

TB:  Yeah.

Do you feel like it’s kind of a contact high?  Do people catch it from each other?

TB:  Absolutely.

What is it like when that happens?

TB:  These are good questions – these are hard to describe!  I don’t know how to explain it.

I can tell you that everybody I interview struggles with questions about this topic.

TB:  Yeah, this question is really hard!  I don’t know, because when I’m in it and I start to think about it is when I leave it.  So I’ve always just sort of tried not to worry about it too much or think about it too much.  Can you re-phrase the question and give me another crack at it?

We were talking about the contact high version of the zone, where somebody in the band gets it, and then someone else catches it from them, and then the whole band is in it.  And you as an individual can get in the zone, and then you might be able to do things that you didn’t even know you could do.  But it also seems like the band as a whole can get into that space.  How does that happen, and what does it feel like when it happens?

TB:  There’s sort of almost like a hierarchy of needs when you’re onstage, like being able to hear what you need to hear, or if you can’t hear what you need to hear, total acceptance of not being able to hear it, putting that behind you.  Any other things that could stand in your way, any other issues like someone else being in a bad mood, or someone not listening – I mean, for me, I’m in the zone when I’m listening, when my attention is completely outside myself and I’m the observer.  The best seat in the house, that’s how I like to see it.  And I think that the band can only achieve that when everybody is listening, and it’s hard because some people think that that’s more important than others, and some people, it’s more natural than others to participate in that way – to sort of drop their preconceptions about how things should go, or worrying about their instrument or their hands, or any of that stuff.

That’s part of the hierarchy – you have to be able to not worry about yourself physically, or your mental space.  The thoughts sort of stop, and it just becomes presence and observation.  And when I’m really feeling it, I’m able to feel like I’m playing my ass off, and singing exactly what I would want to sing, and I’m not even doing it – I’m watching myself do it.  You know, there’s been a few times when I’ve been on the stage, and I’ve literally felt like I was in the audience.

I know exactly what you mean.

TB:  And when I sang, I was blowing my own mind.

Yeah.  “Look at that guy!”

TB:  “How am I doing this?  This is so sick!”  And I was looking out into the audience, and they were, like, “Yeah, this is ridiculous!”  And I was, like, “Yeah, this is awesome!”  I felt like I was standing next to them, and we were looking at each other like, “This is sick!  Yeah!”  You know, we were hanging out.  Because I’ve been that guy in the audience, right?  So I think that’s when I feel like I’m in the zone, and I don’t know how I get there – I always just try to appreciate wherever I’m at, at the time.

It’s sort of like varying degrees.  For me, I get a little closer as my needs are met.  And sometimes I walk onstage and we just start, and we’re all sort of there, and it’s like a miracle, you know?  But other times, you have to try to bring some of the guys in.  Someone’s head’s a little behind, they’re a little too much in their own brain, they’re thinking about their instrument, so you’ve got to go over there and kind of engage them, bump into them, smile at them or something and be, like, “Dude, you’re not with us.  Come on, man, come over here and hang out.”  And that’s partly what the moving onstage does – you’re moving, you’re thinking about your spatial positioning, it distracts you from playing, so then you can just play, and you’re listening, you get by someone and listen.

To be continued…


Todd Snider’s State of (Musical) Grace

Author: | Filed under: Great Performances, In The Zone

In an entry last February, I wrote about Todd Snider and why I admire his particular flair for performing.  He came through town again recently, and what I witnessed at that show made me respect him as a performer more than ever.

The venue where he appeared is a 600-seat proscenium-style theater, which he routinely sells out when he plays there as he draws from a large and loyal fan base in the area.

Todd Snider shows are not your typical sit-and-listen experience.  Because his fans are well-acquainted with his material, and they tend to participate quite vocally at various times, his shows can be pretty raucous, which he seems to thoroughly enjoy and does not discourage in the least.

That night, two things happened which were completely unexpected, and though they were very different in nature, I think the way Snider reacted to them came from the same place.

The first thing that happened was a fight that broke out in the audience, right in the middle of a song.  I had never seen a fight at this particular venue, and it was jarring to see those guys shoving each other and shouting.  This went on, loudly, for a minute or two until security broke it up and removed the people involved.

Now, while this was going on, Snider could have gone a few different ways.  He could have tried to address the audience and gotten drawn into the conflict; he could have gotten rattled by the commotion and stopped the song; or he could have made mention of the incident after it was over.  Instead, he just went on with the song like nothing was happening, and then went on with the show.

I think this had something to do with the fact that he’s up there performing for his own enjoyment.  He’s a natural showman, but what puts him over the top is his love of what he’s doing, and that’s what keeps him doing what he’s doing.  Now, I’m sure he’s played in front of his share of rowdy crowds, so he has plenty of experience with dealing with that kind of distraction.  But I was watching him carefully during those few minutes, and he looked completely self-contained and completely content to be doing exactly what he was doing, exactly where he was doing it, regardless of what was going on around him.

The other thing that happened that night was toward the end of the show.  Snider announced that he was going to do a song called “Alright Guy”, and then he asked if anyone in the audience knew how to play it.  Someone called out that he did, so Snider invited him up onstage to play the song with him, the crew handed him a guitar, and Snider pointed him to the mic.

Again, this is something I had never seen at this venue.  And again, I believe this impulse came from Snider’s love of what he’s doing.  In order for him to have room for the spontaneous to happen, and to be able to create a situation in which a good outcome was possible within the spontaneous, I think he had to be in a state of grace himself.

And the song was great.  The audience went nuts, Snider’s guest (Matt Lindley) blew everyone away with his performance and had a fantastic experience, and Snider clearly loved the whole thing.  You can see for yourself:  watch this clip (in audio and still photographs) that Lindley posted, and check out the look on Snider’s face.  That’s a guy who digs what he does, and it shows.


Bettye LaVette, The Comeback Kid

Author: | Filed under: Great Performances, In The Zone

Last night I saw the great soul singer Bettye LaVette in concert, backed by sidemen from the Drive By Truckers.  The venue was a nightclub, so I felt fortunate to have the opportunity to see her perform in such an intimate setting.

She has a fascinating story, much of which she tells in this interview with Terry Gross on “Fresh Air” from December 2007.

LaVette began her recording career at the age of 16 in 1962.  What was supposed to be her breakout album for Atlantic was shelved by the label in 1972.  After she toiled in relative obscurity for decades, a French producer licensed the lost record and released it in 2000, which then prompted an American release.  This began a long-overdue revitalization of her career.  (You may have seen her perform in the pre-inauguration concert for Barack Obama at the Lincoln Memorial.)

The show last night was a wonderful experience.  She looks fantastic and sounds better than ever.  And as a performer, she’s the real thing.  She works the stage, the crowd, and the material to maximum effect, and she makes the audience believe that there’s nowhere else she would rather be.

What makes her so impactful to me is that she does not seem to sing a single line or phrase until it is completely true to her and there’s nothing else she could possibly sing in that moment.  The material lives in her and comes from within her in a way that is so real and organic that the emotion that springs from her interpretation can be, at times, painfully raw.  I was moved to tears several times during the show, particularly during her performance of the Joe Simon song “It’s Your Turn To Cry”.  I wish every performer could see how she does that song.

It may seem like a strange comparison, but I kept thinking how much she reminded me of Judy Garland, particularly in her famous Carnegie Hall concert from 1961.  Unfortunately, no footage of this concert exists, but Garland’s performance is so vibrant and three-dimensional that you practically can see it when you listen to the recordings from the concert on the timeless album “Judy at Carnegie Hall”.

In this story from NPR’s “Day to Day”, musician David Was talks about that album:

[Judy Garland’s] powerful pipes and passionate approach to song were coupled with a charisma that an awestruck colleague once dubbed ‘a force field that could reach the back of the house’… The success of this album is evidence of her superior musicianship and an actress’s respect to the text, and not just the notes, of a song.  Judy Garland interpreted.”

These are qualities that Bettye LaVette shares, as a performer, with Judy Garland.  And that’s not all they share.  The Carnegie Hall concert was viewed as a wildly successful comeback for Judy Garland at a pivotal point in her career.  In fact, as Was says in his story, “Judy Garland rose from the mat so often she dubbed herself The Comeback Kid.”  There’s no more apt term for Bettye LaVette, who appears to be thoroughly enjoying this new stage in her 47-year career.  We’re lucky to be able to enjoy it with her.


“When the Music is Killin'”

Author: | Filed under: In The Zone

In a post on May 13, I wrote about Wynton Marsalis’ wonderful lecture on arts and public policy that he delivered at the Kennedy Center.  I was thinking today about a story he tells about playing with the late great jazz pianist Kenny Kirkland in the 1980s.  Marsalis says Kirkland used the term “killin'”, which Marsalis had never heard, to describe music this way:

“When the music is killin’, it feels like you’re going slow, but you’re actually going very fast.  It feels like the temperature is rising, but things are very cool.  It feels like you have a million ideas coming at one time, but only one comes out and it’s very focused.  It feels like you’re at one with all the people you’re playing with, and with all the people who are listening.  It means it’s past being good.  It means it’s getting all inside you.“

This beautifully describes the symbiotic relationship between each performer, as well as between the performers and the audience.  It also talks about the sensory experience of being in the zone.  I believe these two concepts are interrelated.

I often work with clients on how they can become more consciously aware of what a good performance experience feels like, while it’s happening, and in terms of all the five senses.  Gaining familiarity with this sensory experience can allow the performer to make the most out of it when it happens each time.

If you can be alert, aware and in charge when the music is killin’ and “getting all inside you”, you can communicate on a higher and freer plane with your fellow performers.  You can also be more open and aware of what you’re giving the audience, and what the audience is giving you in return.


Shaheen Jafargholi

Author: | Filed under: Great Performances, In The Zone

Much has been made of the sensation caused by Susan Boyle, the contestant on “Britain’s Got Talent”, and how the video of her audition for the show went spectacularly viral.  However, there’s a different clip from the show that I find much more compelling: the audition of 12-year-old singer Shaheen Jafargholi from a couple of weeks ago.

In this clip, Shaheen starts to sing the Amy Winehouse version of “Valerie” when Simon Cowell stops him, tells him he’s “got this really wrong”, and asks him what else he sings.  Shaheen then begins “Who’s Lovin’ You”, a Smokey Robinson tune that’s most identified with the Jackson 5.  With the first line of the song, he immediately wows the judges and the audience.

Although Shaheen’s rendition is mostly lifted from Michael Jackson’s classic performance, there’s no mistaking this kid’s very impressive vocal talent.  But what keeps me coming back to this clip is Shaheen’s incredible poise and confidence.  He completely owns the stage and everyone in the room – quite an accomplishment for someone so young, even someone with the fair amount of professional experience he apparently brings to this audition.  And he convincingly sells this song, a song that is extremely difficult to carry off well.

It’s obvious that the sequence is edited for the maximum dramatic effect, as are all the sequences in this show.  But I find myself rooting for this kid every time I see it, and hoping he can hold onto this rock-solid star quality he has right now, at the tender age of 12.