CONVERSATIONS WITH PERFORMERS – Corey Parker, Actor and Teacher/Coach – Part 3 of 3

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

 

[Photo: Dana Patrick]

[Photo: Dana Patrick]

Here is the final installment of my three-part conversation with esteemed actor and acting teacher/coach Corey Parker.

To read the impressive details of Corey’s career, see Part 1, in which Corey talks about how he got tricked into becoming an acting teacher, how he does his own preparation as an actor, and when he’s most likely to experience the zone. In Part 2, Corey talks about his training, why actors need to find their own technique, and how he tries to get out of the way of his students’ creative problem-solving. 

In this installment, Corey talks about developing “the confidence of ability”; the difference between being critical and being judge-y; and how music influences his creative process.

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How do you typically feel at the end of a coaching session? What state are you in?

It totally depends on who I’m working with, but the thing that I’m going for when I’m coaching is to bring about that shift. I don’t want the person I’m working with, and I don’t want me, to feel at the end of the session the way we felt in the beginning. I want it to feel like something happened, because I want there to be revelation to that. And so that depends on what state they’re in, and what they’re looking for, and what’s available from them.

But what I’m definitely trying to do is to go further in with them – maybe get them out of their comfort zone to some degree, maybe challenge what they’re doing all the rest of the time in their life. But in this session, let’s go in and play and ask the questions and pull this thing apart and see where this thing finds itself in you, where it lives in you. And suddenly, by the time we’re done with the session, then there’s an experience that, hopefully, I just earned my money. [laughs] Because there’s no one else in their life doing that. I’ve had that happen with a six-year-old – and at that age, the mothers are also present for a session – I’ve had it happen with teenagers, and I’ve had it happen with adults.

If someone is resisting or kind of shutdown, then I have to deal with that. I once had a student – you won’t believe it, but it’s true – she was a teenager, and she’d gotten into some kind of trouble, and her parents were very Christian, and she wanted to act. That’s all that they knew, and they didn’t like it, but they brought her because everything else was falling apart. And she refused to speak to me.

Oh, wow.

She came for months and would not speak to me. But what I did was, I got great plays from great writers, got two copies, and just started letting her read these characters. And when we would start to read the play, she would come to life as the character. She would express as the character, she would live as the character. And as soon as the play was over, as soon as we’d finish that session, still she would not talk to me. Now, as time passed, she talked to me [laughs], but it took months. It took months.

Wow!

And so I knew back then, by the end of the session, even though she wasn’t personally interested in talking to me because of whatever she’d been through with grownups, and I understand that, through the work itself – the writings of Tennessee Williams or Sam Shepard, the writing of these plays, these characters – she can start to learn just by reading them with me that she is not alone, that she is not the only one, that someone sat and wrote this play, that someone gets her, and that this world of acting and theater, this world is an infinite place full of possibility. And whatever she’s coming into the session with, whatever all that stuff is, there’s a whole new direction available to her if she wants it, and it’s creative.

If you’re going in a linear direction in your life, in every aspect of your life, then that hour that you work with me is not going to be linear. It’s going to be creative, it’s going to be pursuit, it’s going to be investigation, it’s going to be questioning, it’s going to be laughing, and it’s going to be utilizing the work of some great writer, some great piece, to get the ignition happening with you. So you can see, “Oh, there’s much more to my life, much more to my life, than just living with this linear path that society’s telling me I should have.”

So the work always, for me, does the work, and the work speaks for itself. I do feel like there’s a sense of purpose there. And time is short. As you know, people come into your life, they train with you, and then they’re gone and you don’t see them again, or sometimes you do. So when I’m in a session, I don’t know the future [laughs], I just know that time is short, and I’m here to gently and supportively work with them in igniting something that they can bring into wherever they want to go. And I’m not going to be like the other grownups – I can guarantee that.

What an amazing story.

Yeah, it’s true. A couple of years later, she called me out of the blue and apologized. But I understood. When I started training at 13 and 14, we had just moved back to New York City – I didn’t know anybody – and starting to train with these amazing teachers, they automatically brought this deep sense of value to my innards, to just me, to what was inside of me creatively. It was like they knew it, they saw it, and so they always approached the work that way. It wasn’t like there was something outside of me, that I was wrong until I got it right. They saw this valuable treasure inside, and that’s what the whole purpose was of drawing the work together with me, and drawing this stuff out of me.

And for me, that’s the only way. Every person I work with has their own treasure inside of them. I’m not bringing that – that’s theirs, that comes from them, who they are. Whether it’s a really straight housewife who just wants to try this, or whoever it is. Whatever you’ve been through, that treasure is in you.

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With coaching client Sean Combs

It’s like what we were saying before. We go through stuff in life, sometimes, and we’re, like, “Well, that sucked.” But when you teach, you start realizing the stuff you went through that sucked is actually really valuable. And it can be healing to allow the work to mix with it, to some degree. And so that valuing of a person, I just think people don’t get that very often – not in any consistent way. And to have, then, the encouragement to bring that into action, and to be allowed to fail, and learn, and start to get the confidence of ability – that’s important for anybody, I think.

How do you balance needing to be critical, in the sense of pulling something apart, versus being “judge-y”?

That’s been a journey for me. Because to be honest with you, with some of my teachers there was very intense language used of, really, almost right or wrong, of doing the “real work” or not doing the “real work”. Very intense judgement. That was really drilled into me.

Yikes.

So I think it’s been a journey to learn that the most important thing for me – and this goes, again, to that protectiveness that I feel, anyway – is that a note I gave is valueless if I caused personal harm.

When I was young, I was in a rehearsal in a theater in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. My mother [Rocky Parker] was in a play, and Charles Gordone, the first African-American playwright to win the Pulitzer, was directing one of his plays [The Last Chord] and she was in it. And I loved this guy. He was a great guy to me. And he got to this point in the play where they were rehearsing, and he only gave one note and he gave it a million times. And his one note was, “I don’t believe you.” And when he said, “I don’t believe you,” the actors had to go back to the beginning of the scene and start over. And he would say it again, “I don’t believe you,” to get them out of their head, to break that stuff they were holding onto, and allow them to find the syrup, the juice, that was waiting for them in his work. Perhaps if the actor stays focused on the work, they can grow from that.

But I tend to be a purist – that’s just the world that I come from, being a purist. And it’s taken me a lot of time and learning to let go – I’m still letting go of that sense of being a purist – because, to me, it’s false. It’s not really the most important thing. If I give a great acting note, or I point out something about the scene that’s some wonderful thing that I think is great or everyone thinks is great, but if I harm them or embarrass them – which I don’t do, but I’ve seen plenty of teachers do – if that’s what I do, then it’s valueless to me what I’m doing. And maybe that’s my purism. It’s valueless to me if I cause personal harm.

It doesn’t mean I can’t hurt your feelings sometimes. We’re working on something, we get frustrated, we might hurt each other’s feelings, I don’t know. But if I give notes that are just to rip you a new asshole or cause you harm…I mean, the only time I see people do that where I can understand it is where a student is holding onto their limitation, and nothing the teacher says will bring them to the point of letting go. They’re stuck in their limitation, and they’re going to hold onto the limitation, and they almost start acting stupid, like their intelligence level drops. Because there’s an avoidance – there’s something inside of them that they were trained, or taught, by their parents – they’re holding onto it, and there’s no way that scene’s going to work, and there’s no way they’re going to grow unless they acknowledge it, and they don’t want to.

So yes, I’ve seen teachers just yell to the point where the person cries and breaks down, and suddenly you can see it – the block is gone! They let go, and now they’re ready to work, and they’ve just grown. They’ve just grown up in front of you. Of course, some students will leave and head to the elevator before the growth happens. I’ve seen that, too. When you train, discomfort may happen – agitation, frustration – but these are different from personal harm, where you as a person are being attacked.

These things can happen. But it’s not something I’m really looking to do. If I appeal to your intelligence, if I appeal to your sense of who you are, of the importance of what it is you’re trying to do, and if you’re willing to go out of your comfort zone and move forward and fail – fall out of the sky and get up and try again – if you’re willing to do that work, then we will get there. But I don’t like going home and feeling like I just caused personal harm to someone. I just don’t like it, I’m not going to do it, and I don’t think it’s necessary on any creative level. Yes, you can get into conflict with each other. But if I, in the role of teacher, take advantage of it by zinging you so that everybody else laughs at you or whatever, I’m not interested in that.

That’s why I couldn’t make it through that stupid movie Whiplash – it was just so ridiculous, I could not bear it.

Yeah, I couldn’t see it.

I took it for about 10 minutes, and then I was, like, “No, I don’t need this in my brain.”

Yeah.

It seems like so much of being a coach is not just being able to see what could be adjusted, and not just being able to know how to make the adjustment, but how to communicate it.

Big time. It’s so true. It’s so true, and it’s so rare. I mean, there are some great teachers, and I think people like Ivana, she constantly impresses me with that. Every time I go to L.A., I’ll go and watch class, and I was there last month. I started working with Ivana Chubbuck in 1990 when I was on Thirtysomething.

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Thirtysomething, with Melanie Mayron

So she’s been teaching a long time. And I’ve never seen her lose her patience because she’s saying something that she’s said a million other times in her classes. Maybe she does, but what I see is, she stays in with care, in trying to help you connect to this thing. And that’s how many tens of thousands of students? Of course, if you need breakthrough, she brings that, too!

And on the other hand, there are teachers who, you know, they’re just berating. They have low self-esteem or whatever, they’re taking advantage of their position, and that’s just the opposite. And so that ability to communicate, man, that’s so crucial.

The reason I didn’t study with Stella Adler when I was 17 was because I was afraid! [laughs] I mean, everybody talked about how she communicated and I was, like, “I don’t know that I can handle that!” [laughs] I grew up in a household where there was some yelling. I just didn’t know that I wanted to get into a class where that could be happening, that intensity that she had. Now I kind of wish I’d taken the damn class. [laughs]

But the communication is important to me. That’s why I like to watch teachers, and audit teachers – I like to hear how people communicate the work. And if it comes from the heart, then we are all doing something. I think we’re all equal. I’m not better than anybody else. I might work with someone who’s just a beginner, and in a couple of years they might be on hit show. Like, who’s to say? You know, we’re all in this together, we’re all equal. And my whole approach is, sometimes I talk like the teacher, and sometimes I talk like the actor. So as the actor I can say, “Ok, what I see here is…” And they’re, like, “Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah!” We’re in the same boat. That’s the only way I’m interested in doing it. That’s the only way that feels right to me.

When you’re watching a performance – not in a teaching setting, but just watching a performance – do you find yourself thinking about how you might make adjustments to the performance?

Yeah, it’s all the time. If the performance is really good, I forget, and that’s what I like – those performances that just pull you in and you’re, like, “Oh, yay, I loved it, I had fun!” But then things slow down and suddenly I’m, like, “Ooh, I would’ve adjusted that…!” [laughs]

I know!

You can do that stuff, but it’s just having to be off-duty. I try not to say anything, but sometimes I’ll be watching something with my son and my wife, and sometimes it’s, like, “Oh, do you see there? See that he’s…?” [laughs] I really don’t want to do it, but I do get passionate about it.

I love watching old movies. I love watching Turner Classic, I love watching actors from all different eras. Especially starting with the ‘20s where the Broadway actors were coming to L.A. and figuring out how to adjust for camera. There were just so many different phases of learning that actors have gone through, and I just love watching them solve things creatively. I just love their solutions.

I think acting is magic, and I think actors can create magic, and I do think that alchemy is involved in an energetic way. Because you’re just a person who walks in the room and you start doing this work, and suddenly, when you’re on the screen or onstage, energy is transmitted to everyone, to the entire audience. And this is not minimizing the play, but the play itself can’t do it. You need the actors that take this energy from the writer, through the play, do this work and suddenly fill the audience. That kind of transmission, I don’t know many other things that can do that. I mean, obviously, music is incredibly powerful, and music doesn’t require words. [laughs] But actors getting up and acting out the stories of being human – I love it.

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With Debra Messing in Will & Grace

And I do think even instrumental music has to have a story that you need to have in mind when you’re performing it. Are you musician? Do you play any instruments or are you musical in any way?

I love music. When I was young, I took piano lessons and guitar lessons, and I have some guitars in the house, we have a piano, but I’m not a musician, per se. I’m not “in the band”. [laughs] But I do love music, I have a lot of music, I like using music with the work, with exercises.

That’s what I was going to ask you.

Yeah, it’s really powerful. I’m definitely into the power of the music in helping storytelling. I think that it can help actors to drop out of their head, to find ways to use the music. I remember seeing Steppenwolf [Theatre Company]’s production of [Lyle Kessler’s] Orphans [directed by Gary Sinise] which Terry Kinney and Kevin Anderson and John Mahoney were in. [Note: readers will be interested to know that Corey actually took over the role of Phillip when Kevin Anderson left the show – read Corey’s story about that experience on his blog here.]

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With Gary Cole in Orphans

That production was the first time I had ever seen what was called “rock and roll theater”, where they just had huge JBL speakers and they had this incredible Pat Metheny soundtrack, and everything was choreographed. And it was an incredible experience, that these things can all come together to form something that’s even more heightened than simply the performances. So I think it all works together. And that’s part of, if it helps the actor, then use it – a song, a playlist, whatever way you can find what turns you on and helps you.

And thinking in terms of rhythm and beats and dynamics and all that.

Yeah. We’ve got to connect the dots somehow, and the left brain is not going to do that. The way that it does it is just dull. So it’s the creativity that we’re searching for, that’s what we’re looking for – what turns you on creatively, what allows you to go further creatively, what allows you to step into the unknown and to discover the unknown – anything that inspires.

And I think that’s kind of the bottom line for actors – find what inspires you. I don’t care who you’re studying with or not studying with, or where your career is at or it’s not at. Stay inspired. That’s been my experience, and it’s so crucial. Then it doesn’t always matter so much everything that’s happening in the business to you, or not happening. Just stay inspired. Who turns you on creatively? Who do you look up to? Look at them doing it, and just stay feeding yourself.

That’s kind of the crucial thing that I was talking to Ivana about in the interview – how do we take care of ourselves? And that’s ultimately more important to me than technique, it’s more important to me than actors trying to do everything they think they’re supposed to do. We’ve got to take care of ourselves. Nowhere else in the industry is going to do that for you.

[Many thanks to Corey for generously spending so much time with me in this conversation! Readers are encouraged to check out Corey’s amazing blog, The Actors Work, which is full of resources and insights for performers and educators of all stripes. –VA]


CONVERSATIONS WITH PERFORMERS – Corey Parker, Actor and Teacher/Coach – Part 2 of 3

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

 

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Here is the second installment of my three-part conversation with esteemed actor and acting teacher/coach Corey Parker.

To read the impressive details of Corey’s career, see Part 1, in which Corey talks about how he got tricked into becoming an acting teacher, how he does his own preparation as an actor, and when he’s most likely to experience the zone. In Part 2, Corey talks about his training, why actors need to find their own technique, and how he tries to get out of the way of his students’ creative problem-solving. 

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Do you find that you form a quasi-therapeutic relationship with people that you work with?

Yeah, there’s always that line. It depends. I try to take my cue off of the person. If they’re telling me that they’re having a serious problem in life, with a person, and they’re dumping that stuff on me, I have to consciously create a boundary for myself and say, “Here’s what I offer from my own experience. I’m not going to tell you what to do. But in terms of the work, if you’re sitting here and everything is a mess and it’s totally dysfunctional…” You know, I was taught when I was young, “The crazier, the better!” I was in New York, late ‘70s, early ‘80s, and it was just, really, “The crazier, the better. The more stuff you’ve got, great, just throw it into your work.” And I’m not saying that’s not maybe an ingredient, but I just don’t work that way. I just feel like if you’re in total dysfunction, then you can’t compete, there’s no professionalism. You have some stuff to attend to.

What I will try to do is to use the work to help them grow and see what’s possible. Something I like to do is to give them a character who is going through a similar thing that they’re going through, but it’s written by a brilliant writer. And just by working on the piece, they start to see, “Oh, there’s a way to do this. There’s a way to actually work through this stuff. I don’t have to get stuck in the problem. There are solutions. I don’t have to think I’m the only one. Here’s another person going through it and it’s possible.” There’s always that sense of possibility with a character, so I try to find ways to use the work.

But I’ve sent people to therapists, I’ve sent people to all kinds of people. If I feel like there’s someone that can help them, they can go talk to that person. But yeah, boundary is crucial, because without that it just becomes something else. You’re no longer doing the work, and I get kind of a funny feeling and I don’t like it.

I just want to help the person but utilize the work with them. And it’s worked a lot of times. I’ve had kids come to me, they were getting high, their parents were super-right Christian, they’re in trouble in school, but they’ve told their parents that if they are allowed to act, they will do better – and we start working. And over time, they just keep coming and keep coming, for some reason – they keep doing the work. One person’s now living in L.A., one person’s living in New York, they’ve each got their own acting teachers there – it was getting them out of this area, getting them to be exposed to art, to life, to new things, to creativity, to other creative people. Because sometimes, down here, they’re coming from backgrounds where their creativity is isolated. There are no other creative people around them, and there’s sometimes a pejorative approach to creativity down here. So there is a way, I believe, to trust the writers and trust the work, and help someone move forward in their process. I know that there is.

And your Spidey-sense goes off when things are crossing into the wrong place, typically?

Yeah, there’s that line. If someone keeps bringing in massive amounts of drama each time, I’m going to say something. Because, look, I’ve had plenty of drama. But if you’re going to stay stuck in the drama, you know, there’s that saying, “Keep the drama on the stage.” I’m not looking for you to have all the drama every time we talk. I’m looking for you to definitely share what’s going on, but let’s see how we can give that to your work, because the work is going to take you much further than just staying stuck in your own stuff.

In terms of all that, I’m thinking about the different schools of thought that came down from [Konstantin] Stanislavski and how they branched out and went in different directions, between [Lee] Strasberg and [Stella] Adler and [Sanford] Meisner, and how to use a synthesis of that. Certainly, there are some parts of that which are all about stripping yourself bare of all your defenses and thinking about all the terrible things that have ever happened to you and how to “use” that. And then there’s the approach of using your imagination so you don’t have to flay yourself so much. Where do you fall in that debate between all those schools of thought?

When I was a kid in New York, those guys were all alive. My mother had studied with Meisner some, she had studied with Strasberg some, she didn’t study with Adler, but they were the three different schools, and everyone hated each other and it was very divided. So for me, I really felt like if there’s any truth in someone’s technique, then there’s going to be something in common. There’s going to be something universal.

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With Sophia Loren in Courage (1986)

And so I really have always looked for – through Strasberg and [Harold] Clurman and Bobby Lewis and Adler and Meisner and everybody – what is it? Where’s the universal stuff that can serve the actor? And the fact of the matter is, it’s my opinion that every actor is different. [laughs] Every actor needs a different thing. And so I don’t agree with the rigidity of the three teachers. I just feel like if you remove the boundaries, then you’re looking at a continuum of work, and that’s kind of how I see it. And you can pick what works for you, and that’s how I teach.

I think a lot of great teachers that I’ve worked with, that’s the thing – finding your own technique is ultimately the goal. My teachers were mostly Strasberg’s teachers, people that he had teaching for him. I started working with Sandra Seacat when I was 13, and she was one of his teachers, and then with Susan Batson when I was 14, and she was one of his teachers. So the whole thing for me about Strasberg is obviously very rich in what’s available there.

And I’ve read everything plenty of times, and I know other teachers of Strasberg’s, but for me there was a tendency toward the toxic in what I feel is the overuse of the affective memory, the emotional memory. Now, I’m not saying it’s valueless, but on my blog there’s a letter from a woman who’s a therapist, she was a student of Susan Batson and I had worked with her, and it’s just about, what is the effect on the psyche of the actor when you start doing that all the time?

Yes.

It’s just that. It’s not judgment, I’m not judging it, it’s just, what is the impact? And I know that I was trained with it, and when I started teaching I was teaching with it. And I tried to do it as lovingly and caringly as I possibly could, but over a long period of time it really got to me.

Yeah, it starts feeling a little abusive, I agree.

And so for me, I find the people that I work with who are actors, everyone approaches their work differently, and I’ll use anything that I feel might serve them. If it’s using imagination, if it’s using something from your life – I mean, you can’t deny your life, you can’t deny experientially what you’ve lived. As a matter of fact, that’s kind of the source. The way you see things, the way you’ve experienced things, that’s reality. And as much as Adler said that she doesn’t want to work that way, there is a line in [her book] The Art of Acting where she acknowledges it. [“Of course you have to bring your experience to the characters you play.”]

Right.

You can’t avoid it. You don’t have to stay centric to it, entirely. But the starting point of experience, I feel, is how the brain makes connections. What do you know of this topic? What do you know of this subject? What do you know of what this character’s going through? What’s your connection to it? If you don’t know anything, haven’t experienced anything, then you’ve got to research, you’ve got to use your imagination, you’ve got to watch people – you’ve got to do whatever it is that feeds you creatively, and find that process for yourself.

So I don’t have any rules or walls about “shoulds” or “shouldn’ts” – I’m for anything that helps you creatively. When a child does finger painting, there’s no “should”, there’s no pressure, there’s no obligation – it’s just free. And so I feel that when actors are finding what works for them and exploring things and trying things, there should be that sense of, “Just try.” Just try stuff and see what you feel like. Some people don’t want to go near emotional memory. They’re not going to, and they don’t have to. But some people, they’re not so afraid of it.

And so, again, it’s not that I judge it, I just think that Strasberg went too far. There’s that great quote of Clurman’s – I’m paraphrasing – about how Strasberg placed emotion above everything. And then you have what Stanislavski talked about, and Ivana Chubbuck talks about, which is that you don’t want to just have emotion without the objective. With Stanislavski, there’s so much doing – the super objective, the scene objective, the beats, the actions – what’s the doing, what are you doing in this moment?

And getting back to emotion, in the ‘70s, when [Marlon] Brando was out and [Dustin] Hoffman and [Al] Pacino and [Gene] Hackman, all of these actors were revealing emotion at a time when we just hadn’t really had it like that before. We hadn’t seen men do that before – it just wasn’t really permissible in the ‘50s. Some actors did it – Brando did it – but in the ‘70s it all came together into this kind of toxic archetype of the actor who was really trying do that navel-gazing thing.

There’s great value in all three of the techniques. I had a student contact me once who was studying at one of the Meisner schools in New York. She’d gone through the first year, right? No text, just the exercises. And it was the beginning of her second year and she’d just been given a scene, and she was lost. She said, “I just don’t know. We’ve been doing exercises and everything for year, and I love it here, but I just don’t know what to do!” I’m not saying that the two-year program as Meisner taught it would leave an actor in that position – but Meisner is no longer alive. Students can suffer because his techniques are being taught by some who never trained properly. And so, which technique are you going to use? How does the actor find his or her way through the obstacle course to good training?

Today, when you study with better teachers, you learn tools from which you can cherry-pick. You can do repetition, you can choose an objective and go into an improv, you can use that objective and try it in the scene, you can go back into repetition, you can get lost and say, “Let’s go back to the beginning, let’s try the first line”, you can try to bring in an action just for that line, for the second line, for the third line, you can get lost and go back – you can cherry-pick whatever it is that you need.

And that’s why I ask actors, “What do you need?” There’s just so much available to the actor. There’s no limit. We’ve had actors for thousands of years. Anything that helps you. There’s putting on a mask, there’s masterclass.com, anything that’s, like, “Oooh, I want to try that!” That’s what turns me on, and that’s what I want for actors. And I think it’s the actor’s responsibility to communicate what they need and where they struggle inside with the work.

With the cast of Broadway Bound (1992): (L to R) Michele Lee, Hume Cronyn, Jerry Orbach, Anne Bancroft, and Jonathan  Silverman

With the cast of Broadway Bound (1992): (L to R) Michele Lee, Hume Cronyn, Jerry Orbach, Anne Bancroft, and Jonathan Silverman

Do you ever surprise yourself with something that you come up with – an exercise, or some kind of inspiration, or a way of solving a problem?

Yeah, there’s always that, like, “I didn’t realize that that was what my teachers were doing!” [laughs] I always thought they were in complete control. When you’re teaching sometimes, and you’re in the middle of class, suddenly the right brain stuff comes out. I didn’t plan it, I didn’t think it, and suddenly it’s coming out and it’s fluid, it’s cohesive and it serves the work. I don’t know where it came from, and all I can bring is gratitude to that – I don’t take any responsibility for it. I love it when it comes. That’s part of creative problem-solving, it just goes back to that. You’re not going to solve everything with the analytical mind. It’s just not going to happen.

After I started teaching for Susan [Batson], I came to her one day and I said, “I don’t know that I’m always doing what it is that I’m supposed to be doing when I’m teaching. [laughs] What’s the bottom line? What do I need to do?” And she said, “Well, I asked that same question to Lee [Strasberg], and the thing that he told me (and I think it’s in print, other people he’s told it to) was to teach from the heart.” And that’s kind of crucial.

I’ve seen a lot of teachers teach, and I just don’t like watching people teach who have everything fixed in their mind, and they’re just referencing their list of “shoulds” in the left brain. I love people where the unexpected comes out, when suddenly you’re all in it together. Like, how much of you are you willing to bring? And I want to bring my heart. I want to bring that. I just want us to be whatever it takes for our creativity to come together so that you can grow, and sometimes heal. Whatever that is – that’s what I love to do.

There’s also a danger, sometimes, when teachers have a cult of personality that forms and it becomes about the teacher and not about the student.

Yeah, it’s unavoidable. I don’t like it. Sandra Seacat, my first teacher, she doesn’t necessarily do the workshops like she used to – she’s got a lot of famous clients and she has had since the ‘70s – but hers was very big. Susan Batson has it. But it grows around any a good teacher, especially in New York or in L.A. The students bring that, but that’s their choice.

I believe that actors can learn self-care as they train. When I did the interview with Ivana Chubbuck for my blog, I said to her, “Ok, I’ve asked you about acting, but what do you have to say to these actors who come out to L.A., start taking class and doing all that stuff – how do they live? How do they take care themselves?” Because no one ever taught me that. No one ever said anything about that to me. And I learned a lot of hard lessons just being in L.A. for 20 years.

Sure.

And so there’s a lot of desperation, ambition obviously, and a desire, almost, to put teachers in a position where they’re above you. And that’s just kind of the nature of that desperation, that drive that actors have. Who the hell wants to be acting with a teacher that you think sucks? [laughs] You know? So you want the best, and you pick this person, and if you like them, you think, “Yeah, this person’s fucking great!” And you start building this thing around them. You don’t want the opposite, so yeah, we’re going to build that, we’ve got to believe in it.

But that’s where, depending on the background, if someone’s lost a parent, or they’ve been hurt, or they’ve been sexually abused as a kid, or whatever the wound is, that’s when that really kicks in. Actors come with their wounds and they haven’t really done the work on it, and then that’s a place where that stuff starts to really come out.

And then you have the teachers. Some teachers are really sober-minded and they just don’t play it. They do their job and they know actors are projecting that onto them, but they don’t play with it. And then, of course, there are a lot more teachers who do – a lot more teachers who have their own issues or their own wounds, and so now they’re constantly being built-up, they’re constantly being praised, and they start acting like a god, and it’s a stereotype but it’s just true. It’s just out there and that happens.

With Tom Hulce in Nothing Sacred

With Tom Hulce in Nothing Sacred (1988)

I know that for so much of my own practice, it’s been about getting out of the way, and remembering that it’s not about how much I know, it’s about what my client knows, and trying to just point them in the direction of that.

It’s so true. It’s so true, it’s that humility piece. It’s just, like, “Get out of the way.” It’s so true. When I’m teaching and something comes out of me that I didn’t think of before but I think it’s really wonderful, it’s just like you say, “Get out of the way!” [laughs] I’m here to serve the work. And I enjoy that feeling, I like the feeling of serving the work. I do not like the feeling of, “Oh, now I’m the big…whatever.” And, I’ve had moments of it – especially when I was back in L.A., there were moments of it – but it’s not sustaining to me. It doesn’t feel good to me, and I don’t want to play that role.

So I feel happier after class, or when I’m going to sleep at night, staying in the role of serving. And that’s what I ask for. I mean, I do pray sometimes while I’m working – I just pray for guidance, you know? I don’t know where we’re going – how the hell would I know where we’re going? But I do pray or just ask to keep that channel open, because any other way is just, like, “Oh, gosh, I’m going to solve it with my head? I’ll be another male teacher telling you what he knows?” [laughs]

I like the creativity, and I like people challenging me, and if someone tells me I’m full of shit – which they don’t – I invite people to challenge me because if the work is true, it will stand whatever test you want to give it. That’s the thing about the Stanislavski’s work. To me, it transcends even the Adler-Meisner-Strasberg triumvirate. It’s bigger, it just is. You know, Stella Adler had that quote about natural laws – it’s just a system of natural laws – and I believe that. There are just things about nature, and human nature, and it exists, it’s universal. And it’s existed all this time and served so many actors in so many different ways because there’s truth to the core of the work.

But as you know, Stanislavski didn’t say, “This is the work. You must do this work.” He said, take it and do your thing, try it and figure out what works for you. If something doesn’t work for you, toss it. So it’s all in that service of the moment. I mean, isn’t that ultimately where we go, the moment? The creativity happens in the moment, or it doesn’t.

So to me, technique is for problem-solving. When I was young I was taught, “You must learn technique!” It was like a big rubber mallet hitting your head. “You must learn technique! You must learn technique!” And of course you have to learn technique. But it’s easier for me to utilize technique in problem-solving. Let people get up and start working and then they go, “Oh, we’re stuck. What do I do now?” And that’s where you say, “Let’s try technique here. Let’s try this piece of technique…let’s try that piece of technique…” And suddenly they ingest the technique because they’ve found that it actually serves them. I don’t want to just pour it over their head. I think technique is there to help us, and Stanislavski’s work – which he didn’t invent, which he maybe gathered and alchemized, if you will – it’s all over the place. Anything that turns you on creatively is connected to that, for me.

It’s like, any artistic expression is really about trying to find what’s truthful and expressing the truthfulness.

Yeah.

And so much of it, I feel, is learning to recognize the truth. That’s half the battle.

Yeah, and it takes courage and bravery, because there are people who just can’t handle their truth. They don’t want to look, they don’t want to ask, they don’t want to dig, they don’t want to use it, they don’t want to go there. And so to get on it in your work, to say, “I’m this human being right now, in this moment, I’m fully present in this moment and available to enter into this work. And that means I might laugh, I might cry, I might get stuck, I might fail, I might fall, I don’t know. But I’m fully present here and available to step into this work in this moment, me, whoever it is that I am is available.” And to me, that takes a beautiful kind of courage.

Yes, it does. And what is truthful is a shifting target. There are some things that are fundamentally true, and you feel how it lands in your body and you know that it’s a fundamental truth. But there are so many different layers to truth, and it changes.

Yeah, sometimes we all connect with it. We see it up there and we all feel it. And then sometimes we see it and it’s like you can just see that the actor’s feeling it, like they’re learning something in that moment, there’s something happening there. It’s not clicking for me, but there’s something valuable happening there, there’s an ember there. We have to keep fanning the ember of them being willing to step further into saying whatever their truth is. Maybe I don’t want to tell my truth right now, and that can be the truth. Just stepping into, “This is fucking me in the moment.”

There’s a kind of irreverence to it, I think, and without that irreverence, it can become kind of like a dog chasing its tail. Because then we study and we train and we work, but we keep trying to do it “right” or “perfect”. But the irreverence is where we go, “Fuck what I know. [laughs] Or fuck what I’m supposed to do. Fuck it.” That “fuck it” thing is an important thing.

Yes, it is. And humor. Humor is so important – just not taking it so damn seriously, right?

Exactly.

[In Part 3, which will be posted next, Corey talks about developing “the confidence of ability”; the difference between being critical and being judge-y; and how music influences his creative process. –VA]


CONVERSATIONS WITH PERFORMERS – Corey Parker, Actor and Teacher/Coach – Part 1 of 3

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

I’m very pleased to present the first installment of my three-part conversation with actor and acting teacher/coach Corey Parker.

[Photo: Dana Patrick]

[Photo: Dana Patrick]

I was so excited to talk to Corey about teaching and coaching performers, because that’s a rare treat for me as a coach, and he didn’t disappoint. I think actors and musicians alike will find plenty of food for thought in this conversation.

Corey has trained with some of the great Master teachers of the last century, including Uta Hagen, Ivana Chubbuck, Herbert Berghof, Susan Batson, Mira Rostova and Sandra Seacat. He is an accredited instructor for Ivana Chubbuck in the Chubbuck Technique. He has also taught at mentor Susan Batson’s Black Nexxus studios in New York and Los Angeles, at Lesly Kahn’s institute in Los Angeles, at HB Studio in New York and at John Ruskin’s Studio in Los Angeles.

As an actor, Corey is a lifetime member of the Actors Studio, a graduate of the famed High School of Performing Arts, and a lifetime member of the Ensemble Studio Theater in New York and L.A. He worked with Joseph Papp at the Public Theater and has worked with Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater Company in their production of Orphans. He has starred in many theater productions in New York and L.A. On television, Corey has had leading roles in productions on ABC, CBS, NBC, BBC, PBS, FOX, UPN and USA. On film, he has appeared in lead or guest star roles for Universal Studios, 20th Century Fox, Viacom, Paramount, Lorimar, and many independent films. His indies have been shown at the Berlin Film Festival, the London Film Festival, the Palm Springs Film Festival, the Santa Barbara Film Festival, the Seattle Film Festival, SlamDance, the London Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Fim Festival and WorldFest.

Corey has worked directors Mike Nichols, Gary Sinise, John Schlesinger, Alan Parker, Adrian Lyne, Roland Joffe, JJ Abrams, Michael Lindsay Hogg, and James Burrows. He has worked with playwrights Neil Simon, Horton Foote, Vincent Canby, Albert Innaurato, Richard Greenburg, Lanford Wilson, and Charles Gordone. Actors he has worked with include Sophia Loren, John Malkovich, Mickey Rourke, Anne Bancroft, Christopher Walken, Sandy Dennis, Ken McMillan, Bruce Dern, Anthony Perkins, Sherilyn Fenn, James Spader, Debra Messing, Mathew Broderick, and many others.

Corey lives in Memphis with his wife Angela and his son Baker. His older son Charlie lives in the Blue Mountains in New South Wales, Australia.

I encourage readers to check out Corey’s very active blog, The Actors Work, which is a truly amazing resource for actors, teachers, and performers of all stripes.

This conversation will be posted in three installments. In Part 1, Corey talks about how he got tricked into becoming an acting teacher, how he does his own preparation as an actor, and when he’s most likely to experience the zone.

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VA: I was looking at your headshots from when you were a kid, and I’m curious to know what you see when you look at those pictures.

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CP: When I see my earliest headshot, which is from 1970, I just see a really open kid. I enjoyed being a part of it. My mother had started taking me and my brother around to auditions and stuff, and my father had died, and my brother and I were just sort of learning slowly how to audition. [Note: you can read Corey’s interview with and tribute to his mother, Rocky Parker, in his blog post here.] And at that age, you listen to the grownups, and so that’s what I see whenever I look at my headshots as a kid – a kid who’s probably listening and trying to do what he is supposed to do. I’ve never really loved doing headshots, but I love that little kid. I think he did great. I’m proud of him.

I get what you’re saying about openness. There’s really an open quality to your face in those pictures that’s so unspoiled. So many child actors just look terrible.

Yeah.

They look like they been through the mill from being trained to be reactive in a certain way that’s phony, or on cue, and I don’t get that from your pictures at all. But it’s interesting what you say about listening. Because that so fundamental to acting and to coaching, isn’t it?

Yeah, definitely.

When did you feel like you were ready to coach, and what did that feel like?

Well, I didn’t feel ready to coach for a long time, and what I would do was if I had a friend who wanted me to coach them – you know, actors do that with each other, it’s not such a big deal – I would coach actors that I knew, and that was always fun. I had fun doing that. But as far as actually starting to teach, I had friends who would suggest that I start doing it, but I really didn’t feel comfortable playing that role.

It was my teacher, Susan Batson, who at one point around late 1999, when I was in New York, asked me if I wanted to teach, and I said I really didn’t think so. I just didn’t think that was what I wanted to do. I love acting and I love studying, still.

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With Susan Batson

And so she had me come down to one of her advanced classes, and when I got there she announced that she was leaving. She was going to Paris to work with Juliette Binoche. [laughs] So all of the actors in the class were completely shocked. And she left me in the hands of this great actor, Greg Braun, who is also a teacher.

So he was sort of my resource, just as far as what was going on in the class. But it was totally the immersion technique – she just threw me in. And that’s when I started teaching, and I started really loving it.

I had already been acting for most of my life, and I’d been in L.A. for a lot of years, and New York. What I found when I started teaching, immediately, was that I was teaching actors with a lot of the care that I wished some of my teachers had had with me when I was young. So, preparing them for the business, but at the same time really meeting them where they were at, instead of sort of forcing people to be further along. I didn’t want to leave stuff out. I’ve always felt like when I teach someone, I want it to be that when they go out into the business and they suddenly deal with a situation that’s kind of squirrely, whether it’s in an audition or with a casting director or with a director, that they’re, like, “Oh, this is what Corey was talking about.” Because I’ve lived through a lot of those moments.

So I just found that I was really protective over the people that I taught. It’s not coddling them – I want them to know reality – but I’m just protective over them. People come with a lot of baggage. People have been through a lot of things, whether it’s their personal life, or other teachers that they’ve had, or experiences they’ve had in the business. So that’s where I get really protective. It’s like, “Ok, we’ve got to find a way to acknowledge that stuff – and to find a way to work with it – that’s healthy, that’s not harming ourselves.” Once I got started, I realized that my teacher was right and that my friends were right, and that there’s value for me in doing this thing. I love doing it.

What do you think your teacher and your friends saw in you that made them think you’d be a good teacher?

I really believe that it’s the experience that I’ve had. We started off with you asking me about that early picture, and I really did start as a small child. My mother had three kids, and she was trying to do the best that she could. But I spent a lot of time going to auditions in New York. And, also, we moved upstate to Woodstock for nine years, and she used to put me on the Trailways bus when I was a kid and I’d take that down to the city alone.

Wow!

And my grandparents would meet me there at Port Authority Terminal, and this was in the ‘70s so it was kind of intense. And then they would take me to auditions, and we’d get some food, and they’d put me back on the bus and I’d go back up. So the experience of being a kid and growing up in the business, moving back to New York when I was 13, and going to the High School of Performing Arts – there’s a lot of experience there.

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And I think that’s what my teacher was referring to, and my friends. It’s like, you know, “Put that to use.” I’m sure you know that, too. There are experiences that you’ve had sometimes as a performer that may have been unpleasant. But when you start teaching, you realize that there’s actually great value to that experience and that it can be used to build something. And that’s what I love.

And I wonder if there was also something that they saw in the way that you were able to communicate with people, and the trust that you could form with people?

Yeah, you can’t do it without trust. I’ve studied with a lot of great teachers, and I’ve always audited classes, and I love watching people teach. Even when I don’t think they’re good, I learn from the experience of what they’re providing in their class, and what they’re not providing. And safety – feeling safe – you can’t do anything without it. Because people are going to have to feel. They’re going to have to open up. They’re going to have to reveal themselves.

And if you can develop a sense of safety, you got the perfect environment to train. You’re not going to have that safety on the set, unless you’ve got a really top director who creates that on purpose. But in the training process, it’s crucial that you have that safety – that even when you’re afraid, you can reveal that. You reveal what comes up, and you throw that ingredient into the work that you’re doing. So, yeah, feeling safe is definitely crucial.

I think it’s an interesting balance, certainly, when you’re doing one-on-one coaching and you develop a trust relationship, and the person you’re working with gets a sense of, “Ok, I can try stuff and fail and still feel good.”

Yeah.

But it can be really challenging, in a class situation, to try to set up the right dynamic with people who are observing. How do you deal with that?

I don’t let people audit. Everyone’s got to work. A person could come in, never having worked at all before, and I can give them a piece of material or an exercise, and that’s working. Everyone’s got to get up. It’s a different thing to sit and be “in your head” – I’m not really interested in that. We all have times that we spend doing that, but that can’t be the totality of the experience. You won’t get anything out of it. You won’t grow – you’ll stay at arm’s length.

So I don’t allow people to observe. If they want to come see, then they’ve got to come and do it. And it’s not in any kind of punitive way or anything – it’s just, take part. Join in. Because that’s when you can be changed. That’s when you can experience something. You can’t experience the same kind of thing sitting and watching.

But then, also, it depends on what each person’s bringing. When I teach in New York or L.A., it’s a very different experience from when I teach down here in Memphis. What I’ve learned from teaching in Memphis, which I just was never really around but it’s fairly obvious to everyone else, is that there are a lot of people who come in from a background where they’ve received no support, creatively, from their family. No support. Like women who come to me whose husbands don’t want them to do it, or their husbands threaten them not to do it. And we’re just talking about acting – we’re just talking about working on a character or a monologue or a scene. So the drive has to be pretty strong to be willing to overcome that stuff, and I think most actors have that drive.

But everyone’s coming from a different background. The background that I came from, everyone around me was an actor, and we grew up around writers, artists, musicians – there were always creative people around. My mother was doing plays. We lived in Woodstock, we lived in Hell’s Kitchen. That’s the world that I come from.

So it’s really true what you say. When I’m coaching people, if they really want to grow and learn, they’ve just got to show up and bring that willingness and some kind of commitment. And whatever else is going on in their lives – it doesn’t matter what it is – they’re going to grow, they’re going to experience that connection to the work, and that’s the whole point to me.

I think creativity is available in all directions. You can creatively solve most problems. I like to read actors’ and directors’ and writers’ autobiographies, because you hear about creative problem-solving.

Yeah, me too.

I think that people who come to act and want to just do it, even if it’s as a hobby, or if they want to do it as a living – to engage in creative problem-solving and to train that way is going to benefit you, I believe, in all areas of your life potentially. And that’s what I tell the parents of the teenagers down here who come to me. Their parents don’t really want them to do it, and I’m, like, “You don’t understand! [laughs] Creatively, their brain function is going to increase. You’re creating new neural pathways!”

Exactly!

Creatively, you’re doing something that’s very powerful, and the evidence always proves itself.

Does the problem-solving that you do coaching and teaching help you as an actor as well?

It doesn’t do it the way that I wish it would! The way I wish it would is that I could stand there and actually coach myself, which I can’t do. [laughs] I feel like I’d be the most understanding coach for me, but I can’t do that. [laughs] So I have friends that I work with, if I’m working on something. When I’m learning material, I’ll usually run lines with my wife or my son. I just keep people close to me that are caring and creative, and I go through the process.

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With Peter Boyle in Flying Blind (1992-93)

 

 

 

 

 

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With Matthew Broderick in Biloxi Blues (1988)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For me, the older I get, it’s more like giving birth. It takes time, it takes patience, it takes perseverance and determination, it takes receptivity – all of those things. But ultimately, by the time I get onstage or get in front of the camera, there’s been that creative journey. And it continues, usually, until after the job is done. It’s right after the job is finished that you realize, “Oh my god, this is how I should’ve done it!” [laughs] But as long as there’s that pursuit of the creative. But yeah, it’s a little bit of a different compartment for me, teaching and acting.

One of my favorite things to ask people about is how they experience the zone. I know as a coach when I experience the zone, it feels so amazing to have inspiration just coming, coming, coming. How do you experience the zone? Have you identified any circumstances or factors that contribute to you reaching it more often?

I don’t know about other people, but for me, as far as getting into the zone, it only comes when I do a considerable amount of homework. I have to do a great deal of very disciplined, consistent work, and keep persevering, and keep refining, and keep trying and trying and trying. And as I do that, I start to find my way through a script, through a scene, through a moment, through the next moment. And as that work goes in, as long as I’m leading from my heart and not my head, there is a breakthrough moment. I guess it’s similar for runners, where you run for a while and then there’s that breakthrough, and whether it’s endorphins or whatever it is that’s released, suddenly there is a letting go.

And that’s where that beautiful creative moment happens, where you’ve done the earthbound work, and then suddenly you either consciously let go or something allows you to let go, and you enter in. And then you’re in the life, you’re in the moment to moment, you’re not analyzing, you’re not in left brain, your right brain is kicking in, there’s creativity, there’s playfulness, there’s possibility. And so for me, it only happens if I really do all the homework that I need to do – not just homework for my head but also for my body. I’ve got to get my body up. I’ve got to create the world of the character, create the space, create the life of the character.

So in exploration and in doing that work, by getting into my body, by using my mind, by hopefully praying to some degree, by just opening up in some way and staying open – that, for me, is the big requirement. And I can’t guarantee it’s going to happen. It won’t happen if I’m being lazy or procrastinating and just not doing the work.

Or avoidance.

That’s part of the frustration, I think, with teaching. You’re, like, “Oh, if this actor would just do their homework! If they’d do their homework, we could really fly in this class, we could really move to the next level for them.” You can see that they’re on their way there but they’re not doing the work. And, you know, I’ve got a 20-year-old [son] – you can’t make someone else to do work. [laughs] So I do get frustrated as a teacher sometimes, because I’m, like, if these people would just do the work that we talked about them doing last class, and if they’d do it the way that I work, because I work intensely, then we could get to breakthrough. But you don’t get to breakthrough unless you do that work.

And then you can’t rely on the trust that’s developed from the preparation.

Yeah.

I totally get it. Working with musicians and dealing with a lot of people who want a magic cure for stage fright, I have found that preparation is the best way to bypass it, because then you feel confident and you know what your game plan is.

Yeah, there’s the issue of willingness, to me. If someone’s dealing with the fear or someone’s dealing with whatever the obstacle is, if you bring the willingness and that determination, then we can definitely do something. But if you’re “kinda sorta”, if you’re not really convinced that you really have a problem to work on, or you’re not convinced that you really have to do that kind of work, then you’re in some kind of denial and I can’t help you. So that willingness is so crucial. That’s the most important thing to me.

When people come to me, I don’t look to see how talented they are – that’s not what I’m looking for. When I was a young actor, the teachers always said, “Well, you can’t make talent, and talent’s the most important thing.” And maybe that was true for them, but it’s just not true for me. Because I’ve had actors who showed up who were immensely talented, but they wouldn’t do the homework so they just didn’t grow. They’re just relying on what they have, and that’s it.

And I’ve also had people that arrived and I thought, “I don’t even see any talent. I mean, I just don’t see it.” But they’re willing, so I’ll work with them. And I’ll usually dump a lot of work on them to test them and see if they’re going to do the work. And the people who do that work, who consistently listen and do the work that’s given to them, they grow. And they can outshine the people with that talent who don’t do any of the homework. So that willingness is so crucial, and that’s really what I look for.

[In Part 2, which will be posted next, Corey talks about his training, why actors need to find their own technique, and how he tries to get out of the way of his students’ creative problem-solving. –VA]


CONVERSATIONS WITH PERFORMERS: Sarah Jarosz – Part 3 of 3

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

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I’m pleased to present the final installment of my in-depth conversation about performance with Sugar Hill Records artist and two-time Grammy® winner SARAH JAROSZ.  (You can read Part 1 here, where you will also find more information about Sarah in the introduction, and Part 2 is here.)

In this installment, Sarah talks about how she would describe her sensibility, what has shaped her character, and how she keeps her focus on her artistic pursuits. — VA

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You play in so many different settings with so many different combinations of people, and you’re about to go to some new countries and you’ve been to other countries.  I would imagine that all of that information kind of gets in there and expands your horizons, like you talked about your experience going to music school.  Are you conscious of that expansion as it’s happening – playing with this combination at that show, or going into that thing with those people?  Do you feel like you carry a core of yourself as you navigate through all that? 

Oh, yeah, for sure.  Yeah, I definitely feel like I carry a part of myself through it all.  This is great, because what you’re saying is, for me, anyway, I’ve realized that that’s kind of the ultimate goal – to constantly be in a situation where you’re collaborating with different kinds of musicians in different settings.  A lot of my favorite musicians are finding scenarios in which they can do that, in which they’re putting themselves in these situations that are forcing them to do something different.

I think of Mike Marshall, I think of Chris Thile, I think of Béla Fleck, all of those people.  Chris has Nickel Creek and Punch Brothers, and he’s playing with Brad Mehldau and Edgar Meyer, and he’s doing a solo Bach thing.  He’s carrying his spirit with him through all of those different things, but each of those things has its own unique life and its own unique spirit.  And that’s awesome.

For me, I’ve decided that that’s what I hope to do with my life, to constantly be surrounding myself with musicians that I respect and musicians that challenge me.  That’s been a really fun part of the last year, especially, getting to put myself in different settings like that.  For instance, with the Milk Carton Kids last fall, doing that collaborative tour and singing three-part harmony every night.  Normally, I’m onstage by myself singing alone the whole time, and that forced me to use my voice in this different way, to be blending with two other voices for an entire hour and a half.

And you’re working with two people who have been blending with each other for a long time, so you’re working your way into that.

Right.  So jumping in and suddenly being a third – they were having to change up their thing, too, to blend with a third voice.  Exactly.  And now the thing with Sara [Watkins] and Aoife [O’Donovan], and navigating those waters of the different combinations of our voices and instruments.  I truly think that that’s what makes a great musician – putting yourself in those different settings and learning how to bring your voice to it, while also supporting what is going on.

So when you talk about how you carry that core of yourself into all those different situations, how would you describe who that is, who that core is, that defines who you are as an artist?

That’s a tricky one. [laughs] Well, I think it’s easier, maybe, to describe it in terms of the voice, because every person’s voice is unique.  When you’re having a conversation talking to someone on the phone, it’s like, “Oh, well, that’s that person, because that’s their unique voice.”

I think it gets harder to describe when you’re talking about an instrumentalist.  In my mind, the truly great instrumental players of our time, you can recognize their playing by just hearing them play, even if you’re not looking at them or if you’re just hearing a recording of them.  And that becomes their voice.

You hear Béla, or you hear Jerry [Douglas], or you hear Mike Marshall – you know it’s them.  That’s the thing growing up that was cool – going to the Mandolin Symposium and hearing Mike Compton and David Grisman and Mike Marshall and Chris Thile, and they’re all playing the mandolin, they’re all playing the same instrument, and it could just sound exactly the same, but it doesn’t.  And you close your eyes, and I could tell you which one was which, because they’ve all instilled their soul into their playing.  It’s hard to describe exactly what that is, but I think that’s ultimately the goal – allowing that sound and that part of you, creating that part of you, to come through.  I don’t know if I totally answered the question! [laughs]

Well, it’s a weird question!  So, for instance, Mike Marshall – I always think of him as a joyful player, you know?

Yeah.

And he has that joyful sensibility, and when you talk to him, that comes through.  And other people seem to have a darker current to them.

Right.

Or other people, a sort of, I don’t know, interplanetary current?

Totally.

So, I don’t even know if you have a sense of this or could even describe it, but how would you describe your sensibility as an artist?

Well, going back to what you were saying, yeah, you listen to someone like Billie Holiday, and you can just hear all of the trials and sorrow, and awful things that she had to go through, in her voice – that really comes through.  And so for me, I feel very fortunate that I’ve had a pretty good life and haven’t had to face a lot of that adversity.  But what I would hope is that just from listening to music like that and taking little things away from it, and those things going through my individual self and my soul, that even though I haven’t necessarily faced any of that in my own life, I could hear that sorrow within someone else’s music, or hear that joy within someone else’s music, and allow it to come out of me in a way that is truly unique to me, and it’s my own original take and my own original feeling coming through.

That’s just the nature of being human beings.  Three different people could go through life experiencing exactly the same things, and they’re all going to have their own take on it.  That’s what’s so great about music.  Three musicians could go through learning exactly the same songs, exactly the same music, and it’s ultimately going to sound a little bit different.  For me, it just is a product of learning and trying to saturate myself with the music of my heroes and really studying that, and then ultimately trying to create my own music based on what I take in.

I imagine you’ve heard yourself described as an old soul…

Yeah.  [laughs]

…because of the precocity with which you started appearing on the scene, but also the sophistication of how you construct your artistic life.  I mean, there is a sense of, how is that possible in somebody so young, you know?

Yeah.

But in a way, that could feel kind of reductive.  It sort of discounts all the hard work, and all the things you’ve exposed yourself to – the working at it.

Right.

So how does it strike you when people say, “Oh, she’s an old soul…”

Right.  Well, I appreciate you saying that, because I think it is kind of hard for people to really grasp that I’ll be 24 next month, but I really started working hard on this stuff when I was 11 and 12.  I think it’s easy for people to say, “Oh, well, she’s an old soul.”  And this goes for a lot of my peers in the music scene.  I think they face some of this stuff, too.  I just started at such a young age and really worked hard, and started even playing my own live shows around 12 and 13 years old.

I think a lot of that, in terms of the way that I might carry myself, comes from, you know, I’m an only child, and for as long as I can remember, my parents would opt out of the babysitter and just take me with them everywhere they went.  For as long as I can remember, I was always surrounded by older people, and that was just a natural thing.  And so automatically I had to learn how to carry myself and interact with people that were a lot older than me.  And it’s the same for when I started going to a weekly Friday night bluegrass jam in Wimberley [Texas] – all those people were way older than me.

But I think the gift and the magic of it is that I was lucky to be around people, like I was saying earlier, that didn’t belittle me, and they treated me like an adult from the get go.  And so I think that really shaped my character and made me just feel like one of them, and made me want to work really hard to get to play with those people that I respected.

Yeah, I wonder if you had been treated more like a novelty act, if that would have changed a lot of how you felt about things.

Yeah.  People were really straightforward with me and treated me as a real musician, not just a kid musician, and I think that inspired me to want to just work really hard at it and be on their level.  It mostly says the world about a lot of the people that I’ve mentioned in this interview, for having the wherewithal to not treat me like a little kid and to really challenge me.  I’m very thankful for that.

Your career has really exploded over the last several years.  Do you find it hard to keep your focus when you’re being pulled in so many different directions, and now you’ve got your business team behind you and your label and everything.  Is it hard for you to keep it together and do what you need to do take care of yourself so that you can continue your artistic pursuit?

That’s a great question.  Toward the end of last year I did definitely start feeling that way.  And it’s kind of because, you know, for as long as I’ve been doing this whole music thing, I was also in school. [laughs]  I was in middle school, and then high school, and then college, and it was a lot.  It was a whole lot to balance.  And there were definitely times mid-way through college when I thought, “Man, I don’t know if I can do all this!  [laughs] This is a lot for one person to balance.”  But I just decided to stick with it, and I’m really glad I did.

And then from the moment that I graduated college, it was just straight out onto the road for about a year and a half.  It was really at the end of that touring behind Build Me Up From Bones [Sugar Hill Records, 2013] that I was, like, “Ok, I need to not be on the road as much in 2015 and kind of get back to my roots a little bit, and really just focus on my music and my writing.”  Because I just hadn’t had a chance to just stop and catch my breath, really, from the time that I was 12.  [laughs]  Even when I was in school, any breaks that I had in school – spring break or Christmas or over the summer – I was always touring or recording, and working on my music.

And so this year has been really great for me so far.  I moved to New York about a year and a half ago, and for the first time I feel like I really live here [laughs], because I’m at home more than a week or two at a time, and I’ve gotten to just have fun living in the city, and really get back to focus on my songwriting as a craft.  And doing this project with Sara and Aoife, it kind of came at the perfect time, because I’m not touring as much this year, and it lined up for all of our schedules in that way, which is pretty cool.  I do feel like it can be a lot to balance sometimes, but you just have to know when to say, “Ok, I need to get back to my roots a little bit, and remember what that feels like.”

I just can’t imagine juggling all you’ve juggled for all those years.  It must feel liberating to not have to go to school!

Oh, absolutely.  I mean, it was a wonderful four years, but it was a lot, for sure, and I’m very thankful for this time now.  In a way, I feel like I’m coming to know my music now in an even deeper way – to finally, for the first time, just be able to focus on it, solely, and not have the school stuff on top of it all.  It’s very liberating.

Where do you see yourself heading as far as what your priorities are for the next short while?  For instance, what do you want to get from the I’m With Her Tour?

Well, I think for me it’s kind of the first time – even with the Milk Carton Kids, we were all at the forefront of that – this is really the first time where we all feel like we’re equal parts of this.  It’s just going to be a really great opportunity for me to learn even deeper how to play alongside two other musicians in a different way, and maybe even a more supportive way.  Because night after night when it’s just me singing my songs the whole night – I feel like it’s just going to be really refreshing not to have it be my music the whole night.  I’m hoping that it’s going to allow all of us to take on the role of side musicians, in a new way, but also still be at the forefront.  I’m just learning to blend with them.

We’re all really serious about this project, and I’m really excited.  This is our first tour, and I’m excited to get past the point of just remembering the arrangements [laughs], and to work up to a place where we’re really just, like I was saying, reacting off of each other and playing and listening.  We’ve done one show, and that was a lot of new music – it was almost all new music, new covers for us.  It was just trying to get through it and remember everything that we had arranged.  So I’m excited to get past that point and really just be able to play.

Are you conscious of the role that you play in influencing girls coming up – being a strong presence and a “quintuple threat” or whatever people want to call you, being a bandleader, being a front person?  Is that something you’re aware of when you think of the little ones coming up?

Yeah, especially within the last couple of years.  It’s so special when people – and not just girls, but any young musician – coming up to say they’ve been inspired by what I do.  It sort of feels like a full circle kind of moment.  And it’s good, it’s healthy for me to see that.  This business is crazy, and it’s a lot of hours logged traveling in the van, getting from show to show, and I think those are the moments that really make it feel like it’s worth it.  I see a lot of myself in them, and I try to give to them what my heroes gave to me when I was that age.

Thank you again to Sarah Jarosz for taking the time to have this in-depth conversation about performance.  I encourage my readers to check out her beautiful albums – each one truly is a gem – and if you have the opportunity to see Sarah in concert, don’t hesitate to do it.  –VA


CONVERSATIONS WITH PERFORMERS: Sarah Jarosz – Part 2 of 3

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

Jarosz

I’m pleased to present Part 2 of my in-depth conversation about performance with Sugar Hill Records artist and two-time Grammy® winner SARAH JAROSZ.  (You can read Part 1 here, where you will also find more information about Sarah in the introduction.)

In this installment, Sarah talks about learning from her live recordings, getting into the zone onstage, and working in the studio.

The final installment will be posted next week. –VA

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I know that something a lot of artists have trouble with is when people are really effusive with the compliments and are really excited about what they’re seeing and want to share that with you.  What does that feel like to you?

When people give a bunch of compliments?

Yeah, I’ve talked to a lot of other artists where sometimes it doesn’t feel like it lines up, or it’s out of proportion, like that show wasn’t so great or didn’t feel that great to them.

Yeah, that’s an interesting question, because I think I and any musician peer of mine that you talk to will struggle with that, where you get off the stage and you think, “Oh gosh, that was not my best night.”  [laughs]  And then you’re greeted by people saying that was one of the best shows they’ve ever seen.  I’ve kind of learned in those situations, even if I felt like it wasn’t my best playing, to just say thank you.  Because it almost is more of an ego trip to be, like, “Oh, no, that sucked, that was awful!”  [laughs]

Yeah, “You’re wrong!”

Because hopefully they’re being truthful, and they really experienced something that they thought was great, and I think it’s unfair to shoot that down.  So I think it’s good to sort of take it in and be aware that someone’s experience was great – but also to walk away in those settings and learn from your mistakes.  One thing that I’ve tried to get better at doing, which is very hard for me to do, is listening back to shows of mine.  It’s a dreaded thing [laughs], as most musicians, I think, would say.  But if I allow myself to do that, I wind up learning so much, and noticing things.

And this kind of goes back to the question about how it feels to be onstage.  I think this certain part of your brain does kind of go away, because you’re entertaining and you’re up on a stage in front of people.  So some things, I feel like, you can’t rationally notice the way that a person in the audience would notice them, for better or for worse, and by going back and listening I can be, like, “Oh, ok, I didn’t even notice this happening when I was up onstage.”  And a lot of times, for me, that’s maybe singing on the harder side, and when I go back and listen I can say, “Oh, I can actually back away a little bit.  In the moment, with the adrenaline, it feels like I need to sing that really hard, but maybe I don’t actually have to sing it that hard.”  So it’s just taking those compliments, and then also noticing what I would want to be better, and finding a good balance of that.

Do you watch a lot of video?

Of myself?

Yeah.

Every now and then.  I really kind of don’t like to do that [laughs], but when I do let myself, like I’m saying, I learn a lot, and I think actually it can be a very constructive thing to do.

Can you give an example of something that you’ve noticed you do physically that you’ve tried to adjust, or even that you appreciate and say, “Yeah, I’m doing the right thing there”?

Yeah, I think mostly what I notice is the vocal thing that I was saying.  Like, where in the heightened energy of being onstage, for me anyway, there’s this feeling of needing to make everything bigger.  And oftentimes, when I go back to watch a video, I’ll say, “Ok, well, that could still be big, and I wouldn’t have to push it quite as hard.”  And that just goes back to the whole trying to stay relaxed thing, and noticing moments where I could be even more relaxed and settling into a groove.

That’s kind of the ultimate goal, and I think that’s the hardest thing to do onstage – to really settle and relax into a place where you can just listen, where you can just be a reactive musician and really play based on what’s happening in the moment.  Ultimately, onstage, you settle into a lot of your habits and things that you know work night after night, but I think the best shows and the best nights are the ones where the audience is feeding off you, and you’re feeding off that, and you can be relaxed and just play music and not just kind of go through the motions.

Do you find that there are certain things that make it easier for you to get into the zone?

A lot of it has to do with sound.  I find that on nights that the sound is really great, it’s easier for me to just hear.  It’s hard when you’re battling sound issues, and there’s feedback – it’s hard to reach that point of relaxation.  Because the best times are just sitting around in a circle with folks, really playing music, and if you can try to recreate that on a stage, then that’s ultimately going to affect the music.  I try to have a really low monitor sound, because I feel like it’s just truer if I’m playing more off the room than off of a speaker that’s in front of me.  That makes my experience truer, and ultimately more enjoyable.

And, of course, having that ambient sound is going to change depending on whether you’re in a cozy room or on an outdoor festival stage.  Do you find that it’s harder to manufacture that sense of playing off of the atmosphere as opposed to the monitor?

Yeah, definitely.  And I think in that sense I go for a different vibe – it’s almost like two different shows, and two different types of energy that I would try to create, based on those two settings.  Especially in a festival setting on an outdoor stage, it does have this feeling of wanting to be bigger than life.  In a theatre, you have this limited amount of space that you’re trying to fill, and in a festival setting it’s open-air – it could just go on and on and on [laughs] into the ether, so to speak.  And that’s a daunting task to try to fill that and make it feel intimate in such a large setting.  I think it’s just trying to find that balance, in a festival.

Those are especially the times for me when I need to try to stay the most relaxed.  Because it does feel like it takes so much more adrenaline and so much more energy to put on a big show on an outdoor stage, whereas you can really kind of hone in and be really soft and quiet in a nice performing arts center.  I have grown up doing both, and they’re two things that I really enjoy doing.  I just feel like it’s a totally different show in those two settings.

How do you experience the energy coming off the audience?

I think I’m pretty sensitive to it.  I think a lot of musicians, at least a lot of my peers, would say the same thing.  It’s funny – I’m sensitive to it, but I’ve learned, if it starts really getting to me, to kind of try to shut it off.  Because there have been nights when an audience will not necessarily be super-responsive during the show, and people will talk to me afterwards and say, “Oh my god, that was just so amazing!” and you think, “Oh, well, it didn’t feel like you were being responsive to it during the show…”  [laughs]

And so it’s easy to kind of let that stuff get to you in the moment, because all of the energies are sort of uber-heightened, and you become so aware of every little thing, that sometimes it might not be truthful to how it’s actually happening.  I think it can sort of have negative effects, but it can also have really positive effects.  If you’re feeding off of a great crowd, that can really add to the energy of the show.  But then, also, in times when it might be negatively affecting me onstage, I just kind of have to say, “Ok, well, just settle in and relax into the song and focus on that tonight.”

Do it more for yourself.

More for myself, yeah.  And it’s never going to be the same – it’s different from crowd to crowd and night to night – and you just kind of have to learn to adapt.

Do you have a pre-show ritual that you do to get yourself ready to take the stage?

Not necessarily.  I feel like lately what I try to do is I actually just try to be as relaxed as possible.  I really like to actually sit down [laughs], because when you’re onstage you’re standing and you’re putting out a lot of energy, for usually an hour and a half.  I just try to really conserve my energy.  A lot of people try to get really amped up before a show, and I’ve found that the more relaxed I am, the better I am on the stage.  The more energy I try to preserve, the more energy I have to put out on a stage.  But that isn’t really anything in particular.  I think it’s definitely not having conversations before [laughs] – I really try to just relax my voice, and save that energy for the stage.

And how does your state of mind before a show compare to your state of mind when you come off the stage?

That’s a really good question.  I guess the state of mind leading up to a show is, hopefully, relaxed.  But I think inevitably, certain little anxieties – and maybe anxiety’s not the right word, but you’re about to get on a stage in front of a bunch of people.  So you try to be as relaxed as possible, but ultimately you’re thinking about the show and how it’s going to go.  And then after the show, I do feel like it is this huge energy, because you’ve just been on this adrenaline trip, basically, and you’re just at the height of that when you get off the stage.  I feel like it normally lasts for about 45 minutes to an hour – a kind of buzzing, almost, buzzing from that heightened energy – and then it slowly fades away, as you load up the van and drive away. [laughs]  So it’s trying to be really relaxed and calm leading up to a show, and then it’s really high-energy buzzing afterwards.

Do you like to rehearse a show as a show, going through a whole set to get a sense of the arc of the set?

I’ve never really done that, rehearsed all the way through – well, that’s not true.  Definitely running through the songs, but I think there’s something to be said for mostly working on the songs that really feel like they need more time and more work.  But I feel like I have a pretty good sense in my head about the energy and the feel of different songs and, when I’m writing a set list, keeping that stuff in mind and thinking, how is this going to create an arc for a show to bring people up and down on this wave of feelings.  I really appreciate that when I go to see a show, and someone takes me on this up and down journey and it’s not totally horizontal.  I really appreciate that, and so I feel like that’s what I try to do when I create the set.

But it’s cool to leave some stuff for the moment, and for mystery, and not have every little detail planned out.  That allows you to – what I was saying earlier – to listen and react in the moment.  If it’s all planned out to a T, it’s easier to just kind of not be present and rest on your laurels and that kind of thing.  And so I try to leave a little bit of space for being present in the moment.

Do you feel that music school, and in particular your Contemporary Improvisation major, changed you as a performer?

Yeah, I do.  Maybe not as a performer, so much, because that wasn’t really the focus of my time there.  It wasn’t really on performing, it was more on the nitty-gritty of the arrangements and the music.  But I think, ultimately, having my ear expanded, which was really the thing that happened most during my time at NEC [New England Conservatory], that’s actually going to affect how I carry myself onstage.  It’s mostly going to affect the music, and the music is going to affect the performance.

I think being exposed to so many different styles of music that I hadn’t really listened to before – a lot of free improvisation, a lot more jazz, listening to Billie Holiday and Abbey Lincoln and a lot of great female vocalists that I hadn’t been exposed to before my time at NEC – that definitely influenced me and how I approach the stage.  But mostly I feel like, since I was performing for all my life, basically, that part is still me and was there before I went to NEC, and I think it was more the music that was affected by my time there, more than the performance aspect of it.

Do you get a visual sense of what you’re singing about when you’re singing?  Do you picture what you’re singing about?

Yeah, actually.  I have this conversation with people that ask me, “How do you remember lyrics?”  [laughs] And I think a lot of it actually is mental pictures of what’s happening in the songs.  And it can be sort of abstract, like a whole verse could have a certain image with it.  Like with my song “Build Me Up From Bones”, for instance, that whole song started based on the image of a fingernail moon.  And so, really, whenever I sing that song I think about that in my mind.  And even with a song like [Bob Dylan’s] “Ring Them Bells”, each one of those verses carries an image for me, like St. Peter and St. Martha and all of those.  It’s almost like when you’re reading a book, at least for me – you have this image in your mind of what’s happening – and I do feel like that’s how it is when I’m singing songs.

So you mentioned “Build Me Up From Bones” – you were thinking visually as you were writing it?

Definitely.  I think the line that was the spark for that song – this is when I was living in Boston, actually I remember it very clearly.  I was walking down the street, I think it was actually Hemenway Street, which was where I lived during my time in Boston, and it was at night, and it was a fingernail moon.  And I think I just wrote on my phone in my Notes app: fingernail moon scratching on the back of the night.  And I had that line for probably a month before I was, like, that’s pretty cool.

It’s very cool, by the way.

And I eventually took that and made it into the song.  So that image was the initial image that stuck with me for a while with that one.

I imagine that helps you in the studio.  It’s so hard to make a three-dimensional performance with just the aural component, so I imagine that would help you with fleshing out the performance when you’re not in the live setting.

Oh, definitely.  I think some of my favorite writers and performers create a whole world within their music, and they kind of transport you there, whether you’re listening to their record or you are at a live performance.  Ultimately, I feel like that’s why a lot of people go to see live music – it’s because they want to be transported for an hour and a half away from their realities.  And if you can create a space, an image, or a world that allows people to do that, that’s pretty powerful.

And obviously, when we’re seeing a live show, we’ve got the visual information as well – what’s the performer’s face doing, what’s their body language. 

Right.

So you have to put that across in the studio, and all the things that you do with your face and body do show up in the sound, but it has to be within pretty  controlled physical parameters.  How do you feel that you do create that visual sense for the listener when you’re recording?

Yeah, that’s a good question.  This is something that I’m thinking about all the time and trying to get better at.  I was having a conversation with Sara Watkins, actually, and Aoife O’Donovan, because we were all recording on Aoife’s record recently.  And we were talking about how, if you allow yourself to be physical in the studio and move the way you normally would on a stage, then that actually comes across in the recording.  If someone’s smiling while they’re singing a lyric, I feel like I can see that – I can hear it and then see it, you know?

Yes.

Or if someone is being big with their body when they’re singing a lyric, I feel like that comes across.  But a lot of times what winds up happening, and I feel like I’ve definitely been guilty of this, is that you get into the recording studio and you get into the vocal booth, and you kind of stand still [laughs] and sing the lyric really straight, and not at all how you would normally sing it if you’re playing with people or being on a stage.

And so I think if you allow yourself to be true to your physical self in the studio – we were all saying this – that definitely comes across on recordings.  I think it’s just that some people change their whole vibe when they sit in front of a microphone in a studio, and I think if you can allow yourself to just be relaxed and play how you would normally play, then at that point it’s up to the engineer to know how to capture that physicality within the recordings.

And that gets harder when you’re actually recording it live in the studio and you’re stuck behind your instrument.

Right.  Yeah, it’s tricky, and that’s what sets a great recording apart from a not-so-great recording.  And I think that’s why sometimes you’ll hear people say, “Oh, well, I’m not crazy about the record, but I love seeing that person live…”  I think maybe that’s just a product of that, where it is hard to capture that spirit in the studio.  And I think some people are masters of that.  Some people are truly fantastic in a live setting, and might not have figured out how to capture that in a studio, and vice versa.  Some records are products, truly, of the magic of the recording studio and all the different devices and sounds that you can put to use in a studio, and then maybe they aren’t able to recreate that in a live setting.

So it works both ways.  And that’s why I feel like it’s fun to have each be their own thing, and try to bring in elements of both to each.  For me, anyway, a lot of my recordings have a lot of stuff going on that I don’t do in my live shows, and that’s fun.  I think it’s cool to see the different forms that a song can take on in different settings, and be this one thing on a record, but be this maybe more stripped-down thing in a live setting.

How has being in the studio, and doing producing duties in the studios, affected you as a performer – having the producer hat on?

I think it definitely goes back to the whole bandleader thing.  You have to be able to get outside of yourself a little bit, to be able to listen to it as a whole, and to be able to make comments and critiques based on the thing as a whole.  And I think that is actually kind of harder to do in a live setting, because you’re battling all of those other energies, like I was talking about, and so it’s easy to kind of fall into your routine and the way that you proceed through a live show.  Sometimes it can be hard to step outside all of that and see, “Oh, ok, this is the bigger picture, this is what’s going on.”

But having worked with [producer] Gary Paczosa so much, and shared those duties, he’s taught me a lot about noticing things and really taking everything into consideration.  The challenge then becomes, when you consider all the possibilities, how do you narrow it down to the ones that are really crucial to giving the song its life.  One great thing about Gary is that, from a very early age, he encouraged me to dream big and really consider all my options.  And now we’re at this point where we’re, like, “Ok, well, how do we see all the options and then become really picky about what’s really crucial and what the song really needs, and kind of strip it down to that?”  And that mindset in the studio definitely carries over to sculpting a live show as well.

[To be continued…]

In the final installment, to be posted next week, Sarah talks about how she would describe her sensibility, what has shaped her character, and how she keeps her focus on her artistic pursuits. — VA


CONVERSATIONS WITH PERFORMERS: Sarah Jarosz – Part 1 of 3

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

Jarosz

I’m pleased to present an in-depth conversation about performance with one of my very favorite musicians, Sugar Hill Records artist SARAH JAROSZ.  

A multiple Grammy Award nominee over her young but already illustrious career, Sarah won two Grammys in 2017, for Best American Roots Performance (“House of Mercy”, from her fourth album, Undercurrent), and for Best Folk Album (Undercurrent).

Sarah is a musical quintuple threat: singer, multi-instrumentalist (mandolin, octave mandolin, guitar, and banjo), songwriter, bandleader, and co-producer. She is a regular member of the house band on A Prairie Home Companion, and has also appeared on Austin City Limits, the BBC’s Transatlantic SessionseTownAcoustic Café, Mountain StageConan, and The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, among others

You can keep track of Sarah’s touring activity here, and sample some videos here.  

This conversation will be posted in three weekly installments.  In this installment, Sarah discusses her early path to becoming a performer, what inspired her to take herself seriously as a musician, and how she experiences being a bandleader. –VA

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What’s your earliest memory of performing, when you were conscious of performing for other people?  What did that feel like for you?

Well, for me it goes back a long way, and it kind of was just something that I always did.  I think one of the earliest documented performances of me, that I don’t personally remember, was when I was two years old, and it was a school production and I was singing “You’re a Grand Old Flag”, and I was actually wearing a little flag dress, if you can believe it [laughs].  I grew up in Texas, after all!  So it was always something I did.  It just was always sort of second nature – the singing part of it.

It started out in school performances, and then I did a bunch of national choirs.  My first music teacher – her name was Diana Riepe – she was very formative for me.  She taught using the Kodály method of music, which is based around solfège – you know, the hand signals representing the notes.  She was the one that encouraged me to try out for these national choirs which were run by the Kodály people.

So I did that about five years, and it was always in a different place.  So that was actually my first experience traveling for my music.  This all started maybe in the second or third grade time frame.  And I got to go to Chicago and San Francisco and Massachusetts, and it was just really special to get to travel and see the country because of my music.  And luckily my parents were really supportive of that.  I just was always doing something where I was performing, and so it always felt comfortable being onstage in front of people.

Do you remember how you felt being onstage, how you experienced the audience and how you experienced your body, when you were that age?

I’m trying to remember.  It just felt normal – I don’t know that it felt any different.  It did feel good.  I remember really enjoying it, that’s for sure, and almost getting giddy off of it, getting up onstage, and being really excited afterwards.  And for a lot of my peers, I remember they would be, like, “Oh, I’m so nervous!”  And I just never felt that.  It felt really physically natural to do.

And then when you started playing instruments, did you feel that the instruments were an extension of yourself?

Yes.  Yeah, definitely.  And it’s actually to the point now where I almost feel weird onstage if I don’t have an instrument in my hands.  Because when I started playing the mandolin, and later on the guitar and the banjo, I was always playing and singing simultaneously.  Only recently in my shows did I start just doing one song where I was only singing.  Yeah, and so it did become an extension of that, and actually something that I came to really rely on.

When you’re onstage, do you feel like yourself, or a version of yourself, or do you feel like it’s somebody different who’s up there?

It’s a little bit of both.  I think maybe the best way to put it would be “an extended version of myself”.  There is a certain amount of taking on another persona, because people want to be entertained.  I’m afraid to use the word “acting”, because it is me, and it is not being someone that I’m not, but it is sort of larger, to a certain degree, than I might be if I’m just having a conversation with someone or sitting around in a circle playing music.  But I think what I constantly work on is, I’m trying to find that balance of being able to entertain folks and put on a show, while still being really relaxed and just playing.  I think it’s finding a balance of that that’s key, and that’s what I constantly try to work on.

I’m sure a lot of people have said this to you, but you have so much poise on the stage…

Thank you!

And you seem so relaxed, and you seem like you’re able to just plug into the groove so readily.  I remember the first time I saw you was when you did a tweener [a song between sets] at RockyGrass.  You must have been 12 or 13 – do you remember that?

Yeah, I think I was 12.

I think you did “Blue Night” or something?

“Blue Moon of Kentucky”.

Yeah.  And everybody was, like, “What was that?”  I know I was.  Because you just seemed so completely comfortable, and that’s unusual for someone that age.  And you’ve definitely matured into that, but it’s something I feel like you’ve always had, and I’m sure you’re always hearing that.  What do you think that comes from?  What do you think accounts for that?

I think it comes, largely, from what I was saying about how’s it’s just always what I’ve done – I’ve been up on a stage since I was two years old.  And I think another part of it is having parents that, from a very early age, made me believe that it could be a reality, that it could be my career and my life.  I think I might have approached the stage differently had I been the kind of person that heard, “Oh, well, this is a great hobby, but you should really think about doing something else…”

“Have a safety plan!”

Yeah, exactly.  And that was never the case.  I’m very fortunate that they were so supportive of that.  So they made me feel comfortable, in that regard.  They made me feel like I could do it.  And especially starting out this young, that played a big role.  And then, on top of that, just seeing live music for as long as I can remember, witnessing other people do it, and recognizing things that I liked about certain performances and things that I didn’t like about others, and that being normal, too.  I think a lot of my peers, at my age, their parents weren’t taking them out almost every night to see live shows in Austin [laughs].  So that was a reality to me, too, just getting to witness so many amazing performances at a very early age.

What kinds of things did you notice that made you think, well, that works for me, or that makes sense for me – not necessarily that you’re going to steal or incorporate, but that would influence your own persona onstage?  Not necessarily even performers, but aspects of performance that you took note of?

Well, I guess early on, if we’re going way back, a lot of the things I would see were the Texas singer-songwriter folks – someone like Shawn Colvin, or Guy Clark, or Bill Staines – those are some of my earliest memories of concerts.  And so that’s its own thing.  It’s more of the storyteller persona of being onstage, which I love.

But then, I think what really gave me this jolt of excitement, of wanting to do it, was seeing Nickel Creek play.  Because that was really happening at the time that I had just picked up the mandolin – I was about 10 or 11 – and seeing Chris [Thile] play, and seeing the way that he is just a rock star onstage, but still with all these acoustic instruments.  And all of them were just so great onstage.  And seeing people that were closer to my age doing this and having such a great stage presence and making it just larger than life, you know, is how it felt to watch those shows at that age.  And that’s when I thought, “Ok…I want to do this!” [laughs]

And then, of course, you eventually started hanging out with these guys, at music camps and all that.  When did you feel like you were one of their peers, performance-wise?

Well, it’s kind of a blurry line, because a lot of them just made me feel so welcome from the very beginning.  But I will say, I feel like it’s really only since I moved away from home, and went to college [New England Conservatory], and starting life on my own now, that it really feels that way.  But truly, from the get-go, one of my favorite stories is when I first met Nickel Creek.  I think I was 10, and they were playing at a festival outside of Austin called the Old Settler’s Music Festival.  And they were doing a little workshop – you know how those things go at festivals.  And I had just seen their music video on TV, and I had just gotten my first mandolin.  And I walked up to them after, and Chris kneeled down and wrote, “Let’s jam sometime!” on my program. [laughs] And that was kind of the moment when I was, like, “All right! I want to get good enough to jam with him someday…”  [laughs]

But just for him to write that – I’m just any little girl – there was always that air of kindness.  And the same goes for so many people in the scene, like you’re saying, and I just felt really welcome.  And that had a lot to do with my being inspired and being encouraged to want to get really good.  Because all of those people were, like, “Well, if you work hard enough, you can do this.”

Yeah, there is a real sense of generosity in the community, and also a sense of wanting to bring people up, you know?

Yes.  And actually Mike Marshall, I feel like, is one of the best at that.  He certainly was that for me, right from the get-go.  A real turning point truly was my first RockyGrass Academy when I was 11.  That’s where I got to meet Mike for the first time and learn from him.  I mean, how cool is it?  I’m guessing maybe at that point he was in his 40s, and someone like that doesn’t have to give an 11 year old the time of day, you know? [laughs]  I had just been playing for a year.  But he was just so generous and so encouraging.  And he treated me like an adult, and I think that was also the thing about all those people.  They never treated me like a little kid, and they approached their teaching in that way as well.  They weren’t dumbing it down – they were always really challenging me.

It’s also interesting to me that your writing is as sophisticated as anything else that you’re going to find out there.  And that must come from a sensibility of being so saturated in the sophisticated theory that happens in that music that you’re around. 

Yeah.

And you were writing before you went to music school.  When you write, are you thinking in terms of how it’s going to feel to perform those songs?

Yes and no.  I think initially no, because I was just trying to see if I could do it in the first place.  I feel like the more that I’ve done it, I might be thinking about that aspect more – how it’s going to feel to play on a stage.  But initially, I guess I first started trying to write when I was 12 or 13.  And my mom had always written songs as a hobby, and that in itself made me feel like, “Ok, this is possible, this is something that people do…”  [laughs]  And from the very early stages, a lot of it was just kind of messing around with little ideas, and I would often show her the ideas, and she would say, “Ok, well, that’s cool – what if you tried this?”  Just having that influence in the house was kind of crucial.

And then, on top of that, all the great songwriters that I was exposed to from such an early age, and trying to, initially, kind of model the songs after those people – like Gillian Welch, or Tim O’Brien, or Darrell Scott.  I think, going back to my first record [Song Up In Her Head, Sugar Hill Records, 2009], a song like “Tell Me True” was very influenced by Gillian or Tim – kind of that old-timey sound.  And a song like “Broussard’s Lament” is very influenced by someone like Darrell Scott – the “percussion-y” style of guitar.

I definitely see what you’re saying about the influences.  However, you’ve got your own “voice” on those.  I mean, that’s definitely something that develops over time, but they’ve got your sensibility on them, don’t you think?  They’re original in that sense.

Yeah, I feel – as any musician feels, I’m sure – that you’re influenced by everything that you take in, and it goes in, and you kind of process it in your own original way, and then hopefully what comes out has its own stamp with your sound.  And that’s always what I was trying to do, and that’s what I still do, and that’s what’s so great about music and art – it’s just endless.  You can always be discovering something new that you haven’t heard before, and that’s going to set off some other little trigger inside of you that you might not have known was in there before.  That’s going to release something new in your interpretation, and the way that you process that is going to be different from the next guy, and so automatically that’s going to make it have its own original stamp.

And you do such interesting things with covers.  I think you pick covers that are challenging, but also may be freeing, in that they don’t have a real lyrical standard to them – like a Tom Waits or a Bob Dylan cover that, you know, you’re definitely not going to sing it like they do it.

Exactly.  [laughs]

What inspires you to bring a cover to your act and to bring your own twist to it?  What is there in a cover that is intriguing to you?

I think a lot of it is picking songs that I feel I could do something unique and original to.  Like you’re saying, I seem to pick songs by writers that I admire greatly, but sound very different from me, even vocally, like Joanna Newsom or Tom Waits or Bob Dylan.  Those are all such distinct voices.  I guess there are differences in the choice that goes into picking a cover for a live show versus picking a cover for a recording.

I think for a recording, it has to bring something to the table that makes sense on a record, and not just, like, “Ok, this is just a collection of songs.”  It has to make sense with the other songs.  It has to bring something that fills out the feel and the story.  Like with [Dylan’s] “Simple Twist of Fate”, for instance, on my last record [Build Me Up From Bones, Sugar Hill Records, 2013], that appealed to me because it was such a sparse arrangement of that song, and I had never really recorded something that open and bare before, and that seemed like a good texture to bring in to fill out the rest of the record.  But mostly it’s just picking songs that I love to sing and feel like I can do something a little new to.

When did you feel like you could bring something to the table as a bandleader?

I guess that always kind of came naturally.  I think that sort of spawned out of writing my own songs.  I think it might have been different had I not been writing my own material.  That in itself just gives way to hearing different arrangements and saying, “How do I want this song to take life on a stage or in a studio?” and from there thinking, “Ok, well, this person would be ideal, or this person would make it really great.”

And luckily, around that same time, I started going to a lot of these music camps.  Mike [Marshall] and Dawg’s [David Grisman’s] Mandolin Symposium, for instance, was a place where I started meeting musicians my own age who were into a lot of the same music.  And I think a lot of wanting to play my own shows came out of that – you know, playing with guys like Alex [Hargreaves] and Nat [Nathaniel Smith] and seeing, “Ok, these people are doing it, too.”  But then it goes beyond that, and you meet musicians you feel really get your music and can really bring your songs to life.

You have a really calm energy around bandleading.  When I’ve seen your trio with Alex and Nat, I have been struck by how you create a bubble around the three of you that’s like a safety zone or something…

Yeah.

…and sort of, like, what’s possible within that bubble?  You’re definitely including the audience, but I feel like Alex and Nat can just sort of lay back and do what they do.  And that’s not always the case.  Sometimes you see with a bandleader that there’s a kind of jangly energy to it that seems counter-productive, you know what I mean?

Yeah, definitely.

So are you conscious of creating that?

Yeah, for sure.  Actually, the thing with Alex and Nat, it’s kind of seen its day, for now at least.  We played together for almost five years, and I was definitely excited to try out some other things.  So right now, I’ve done a few shows in another trio setting with Mark Schatz on the bass and Jedd Hughes on guitar and singing.  But I feel like this question pertains to any sort of configuration like that, and I’ve always tried to surround myself with musicians that do create that bubble and that sense of a wholeness.

Also, having played so many solo shows, it’s interesting to see the songs take form with musicians backing it up.  But I think the goal is to find those musicians that make it feel just as relaxed as if it were in a solo setting, and just as smooth and seamless.  And I feel like Nat and Alex really brought a lot to the table in terms of how that happened, and I’m excited to see other configurations and how my songs can take shape with different musicians.

[To be continued…]

In the next installment, Sarah talks about learning from her live recordings, getting into the zone onstage, and working in the studio. — VA


HOLLY NEAR — A Q&A

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

Singer/songwriter/actor/author/activist HOLLY NEAR has been making powerful music for over 40 years.  She is widely known as one of the original feminist musicians of the 1970s whose ranks also include such artists as Cris Williamson, Meg Christian, and Margie Adam.  In 1972, she was quite possibly the first woman ever to start an independent, artist-owned label (Redwood Records).  Through her appearances and recordings, she has worked for peace and human rights in the U.S. and many other countries around the world.  For a detailed look at her accomplishments in music, film, television, theatre, and progressive action, see this timeline on her website.  She recently appeared in the star-studded Memorial Concert for Pete and Toshi Seeger [Lincoln Center Out of Doors], and her 30th album, Peace Becomes You [Calico Tracks Music], can be purchased through her online store along with many other titles in her impressive discography.  Ms. Near graciously agreed to consider a series of performance-related questions I submitted to her.  Here are her illuminating responses, which I received from her by email. –VA

Do you consider yourself to be a natural-born performer?

­­­­­Yes.  I have been “presenting” since I was a small child, starting in the living room of our family home.

When you’re onstage, do you feel like yourself, or do you feel like a different version of yourself?  In what ways?

I am “Holly Near” or “Her” when I am presenting.  She is different than the person offstage.  Of course there are similarities.  Still the one onstage is projecting a personality, a sound, a story, a song, a feeling.  It is, by nature, the theatrical-izing of a self.

When you were developing your music career, were you conscious of wanting to present yourself onstage differently than mainstream female singers had typically been presenting themselves?  If so, what did you want to do differently?  Was this a topic of discussion at the time among you and your peers?

As a child, I was not having this conversation with myself.  But when I became more conscious of the idea of female and woman as a result of my growing feminism, then I began to study my behavior, my performance, my ideas through that window.  I had always had a strong stance.  That did not change.  I had always had a big voice.  That did not change.  It was more in my mind, my perception, and the greatest impact was realized in the lyrics to my songs and the introductions to the songs.  All the feminist performers I worked with were thinking about how we were presenting ourselves as feminists different from how we had been presenting ourselves as women.  Again, we were mostly looking at the lyrics, the music and the way in which women related to each other and to community differently once we became self-proclaimed feminists and, in some cases, as lesbian feminists.

You’ve said that Ronnie Gilbert [of The Weavers] influenced the way you stand onstage and the way you sing out in a strong way.  [Note to readers: for context, see this clip from “The Weavers: Wasn’t That A Time!”, a 1982 documentary by Jim Brown.]  Have female artists of subsequent generations told you that you influenced their performing styles?  If so, in what ways?

Yes.  I used to watch people come up to Ronnie and say, “I grew up on your music.”  Now they say it to me.  I am now older than Ronnie was when she and I first worked together.  As for performers, I don’t know specifically how my work has influenced them.  But from my point of view, it may be a subtle thing that they don’t even realize and won’t until they are much older, when they come to an age of reflection.  Young people are usually so in the present and that, in my opinion, is where they should be.  But someday, they will know that each generation makes a path on which the next generation walks.  Feminist cultural activists made a large walkway for young women who now freely dance along without always knowing that it used to be a briar patch.  That pleases me.

What things you do differently now as a performer than when you were first coming up, such as how you relate to the audience, or how you introduce songs?  How is your philosophy about performance different?  How is the way you present yourself different?

I am not sure it is different.  I have been a very consistent performer.  However, I do what I set out to do with much greater ease and sophistication, with greater craft.  And that is wonderful.  I am very respectful of craft.

Do you have a sense of being in your body when you’re onstage?  Do you feel like you’re grounded?

I make a point of landing before I walk on stage.  It takes 15 seconds in the wings.  I am very much grounded.  However, there is something else that happens if I am doing my job well and that is I let the unknown be with me.  I do not have a set patter or staging.  I will often speak about something for the first time in front of an audience without having rehearsed it.  I work in new thoughts spontaneously.  But this comes with practice.  I am much better at it now than when I was starting out.  I used to sing more notes and use more words.  Now I am more concise.  I’m more relaxed.  I allow humor to flow easily.  I have a very intimate relationship with the audience, whether it is 100 or 1000, I make the work personal.

Do you get stage fright?  If you don’t, why do you think you don’t?  If you do, what do you do to combat it?

No.  I was a little nervous from time to time when I first started performing.  I would freeze up.  But after a while, that went away.  Now the only time I get nervous is if I am asked to do something I am not sure of or if I present in front of a group where I’m not sure if I am welcome.  The rest of the time, I have no fear or nerves.  Excitement sometimes, but that is different than fear.  When I do workshops and people ask about stage fright, I give them an exercise to do.  It works for some, not for others.  I ask the presenter to feel like the host rather than the guest.  Turn the power dynamic around so that one is not feeling looked at or judged but rather is looking at the audience and welcoming them as you would someone in to your home.  Mentally check to see if they feel welcome, if they are comfortable, if there is anything they need and eventually, one starts to feel comfortable with the possibility that what they might need is you.  Not you, the nervous and insecure one, but you the generous artist who prepared to share what you have to offer with grace and confidence.

Do you have a pre-show ritual or routine that helps you get ready to go onstage? If so, would you be willing to describe it?

It takes about 15 seconds.  I simply remind myself when standing in the wings what is my job.  Why am I here and what is it I am meant to do.  Then I go do it.

Do you connect to your older songs differently than you used to?  Do they mean different things to you now than they used to?  What, if anything, do you do to keep the connection to them fresh?

Every time I sing a song, I let it live in the current moment.  That is what keeps it fresh.  I often introduce a song with a different story and that influences what the song means to me and probably what it means to the audience.  A song is not static or at least it doesn’t need to be.

Do you get a visual sense of what you’re singing about when you’re singing?  If so, how do you experience that?

In my particular style of writing and presenting, each song is a story and sometimes like a little three minute play.  So the song is very visual because there are characters and location and tension and outcome.

When you think of your favorite performers, what are the qualities they possess which excite you as a member of the audience?

When they walk on stage I know that something exciting is going to happen.  Period.

How do you keep your focus during a performance, and stay in the moment?  Which conditions make this more difficult or less difficult for you?  Which conditions make it more or less likely that you’ll be able to go into “the zone” when you’re performing?

I don’t have trouble staying focused.  The moment, or “the zone” as you refer to it, is where I live.  It is the house I walk into when I walk in front of an audience.  The conditions don’t matter.  I have played in places where you can hear a pin drop and places where you can hear a bomb drop.  I take ” the zone” with me where ever I go.

You’ve traveled extensively during your career, and you’ve been exposed to many musical cultures and styles of performing.  When you’ve performed in other countries, have you noticed that you changed how you presented yourself onstage or how you interacted with the audience?

When I sing in other cultures, whether it is another country or a neighborhood that experiences their daily life differently than I do, I try to remember to take a passport.  By this, I mean I try to be sensitive always to where I am, whether it is festival in Nicaragua or a senior center in California.  And if I stay connected to that awareness, the presentation changes.  I think the hardest for me is when I am singing in English in a place where English is not spoken.  My songs are so wordy.  I have never figured out how to do that well.  Translation is very time consuming and ideas are complex.  If one is a singer of love songs, then the audience can simply relax and enjoy the sound of the voice, the musicality of the artist, the emotion of the interpretation.  But with my songs, it is not so easy.  I have yet to feel comfortable with this.  So, I do a lot of listening to others when I go to other countries.  And that works just fine.  People love to be heard.  Not so good for my ego but definitely good for international relations.

Thank you to Holly Near for taking the time to share her thoughts with us on the subject of performance.  I urge my readers to see her in concert and to check out her catalogue for purchase. –VA


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]

In February, I taught a live performance master class at the International Folk Alliance conference in Kansas City, MO.  While I was at the 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

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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]

In February, I taught a live performance master class at the International Folk Alliance conference in Kansas City, MO.  While I was at the 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 latest 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 weekly installments.  –VA

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[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: Travis Book of The Infamous Stringdusters – Part 3 of 3

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

The following is Part 3 of my conversation about performance with TRAVIS BOOK, upright bassist and vocalist for Sugar Hill recording artists The Infamous Stringdusters.  I spoke with Travis in Lyons, Colorado.  The Stringdusters earned a Grammy® nominationin the Best Country Instrumental Performance category, for their recording of Magic #9″ from their album, Things That Fly.

This interview has been posted in three weekly installments.  In this installment, Travis discusses how he experiences other people’s performances . — VA

Do you get stage fright?

Travis Book:  Not anymore.

Why do you think that is?

TB:  Well, I’ve never really had stage fright – I used to have pre-gig anxiety.  But I don’t know why I don’t get it anymore.  I think it’s just that I know what I do is good.  And it’s not for everybody, and I’m sure that people can be very critical of what I do.  But I really like my music, and I trust the people that I play with, and I feel good about it.  So, you know, again, if people aren’t into it, that’s totally cool.  I’m less identified with the music that I play now – I think that may be a big part of it for me, personally, too.  I feel less identified with it – it’s not who I am.  It’s just a part of what I experience in the world.  And if it doesn’t go well, that’s ok.  If people don’t like it, then that’s fine, too.  Because I think it’s all going to work out the way it’s supposed to.

Do you guys have a pre-show ritual that you do?

TB:  We developed one lately.  We’ll put our fists together and do a little, “Yeahh!”  We all just try to get together and get on the same page.  That’s about it – we don’t really do anything specifically.  We have been trying to get everybody to get in a circle together and look at each other, and just tie our energy together real briefly before we go on.  But that’s sort of recent – the last six or eight months, we started doing that.  A recent development.

How did that start?

TB:  I don’t know.  Someone just did it at one show, and it was really fun.  It just felt good to bump our fists – you know, like a bunch of guys, “We’re going onstage, we’re going to do this together. “ You know, you can’t go up there and do it alone, it takes every single person.  So it’s like, “Put in the fists, look at all the hands.” You know?  “See all your brothers around you.  We’re all going to do this, let’s go do this.”  And then we walk up onstage and we do it.

What gets you excited when you see what you consider to be a great performance?

TB:   It’s just people who are totally original and genuine, just being themselves, playing music that’s true to their experience.  And people that feel comfortable, because any time anybody’s at all uncomfortable onstage, it makes me uncomfortable.  And it’s like a direct correlation:  as uncomfortable as they are, is about as uncomfortable as I am watching them.  And I also can’t watch people that don’t like each other, and I can tell – you can’t hide that.  You can fake it all you want, but I see right through that.  So I just want people to just be themselves, and do something original, and enjoy themselves, and be comfortable.

You must get to see a lot of music.

TB:  I do, I see quite a bit of music, but I don’t see as much as I should.  You know, I don’t really pass a lot of judgment anymore on music, because being a professional musician ruined my experience for a long time.  I couldn’t just watch things and enjoy them for what they were.  I was always trying to figure out what was going on, or learn something from it, and a lot of times, also, in bluegrass scene, I was being judgmental.  And that’s because I was insecure, you know?  I was watching other bass players and being like, “Hey, I can’t do that.”  Or, “This is cool.”  Or, “This is not good.”  Or whatever.  I was trying to identify it.

I think the shows that I like the best are the shows that I see that are my friends playing, people I have personal relationships with, because I have a real attachment to it.  Just in general, it’s fun to watch people have a good time, but I’m getting better at just allowing music to wash over me, and not thinking as much about whether it’s “good” or “bad”.  I tend to just watch people experience their own music.  And that’s been really liberating.

But I don’t know, I don’t get as excited about music as I used to, because I kind of am into all of it.  Like, I’m so psyched that people are out here picking, and I don’t really want to sit around and listen to a bunch of people play beginner banjo, but I also love it for a few seconds because it’s so cool to hear people figuring it out, because I understand the beginner mind.  And I also understand what it’s like to be a professional musician – it’s not all it’s cracked up to be, there’s no magic there.  We’re all human, and there’s only a few of us that are just absolute geniuses.  So I like to watch people and, like, “Ok, cool, I like that music”, and then I go for a hike or do all the other things that interest me a lot.

Do you watch much video of yourself?

TB:  No.

On purpose?

TB:  Yeah, I’m just not interested.  I guess I should probably watch – it would probably help my performance, for sure, to watch myself.  And I tell my students to listen to themselves and watch themselves.  I’ll listen to myself sometimes, but I don’t really watch myself.  Because I’m conscious of becoming sort of like an “actor” – I try not to act.  I’ve done some of that onstage.  Like, I had a philosophy at one point of, even if I’m not having a good time, I’m going to act like it.  And that was part of my path to learning how to just have a good time all the time, but it was really uncomfortable for me to be faking it – it felt sort of unreal.  So I don’t really watch myself anymore – I don’t think about it.  I don’t consciously try to perform like anything, I just try to pay really close attention.  And it always makes me so happy, it makes me smile to watch people enjoy it.  And listening to my bros absolutely rip – because they’re so good, you know? – that makes me happy enough, and that’s the performance, just me being present.

You do look very happy to be there, and you have a really comfortable manner.  You’re very grounded, but you’re not stuck or static or closed, you know?  You’re grounded but you’re flowing.  Do you experience that?  Do you feel like energy’s flowing through you?

TB:  Absolutely.

Do you consciously notice that, or is that just how it is for you?

TB:  Yeah, I think I notice that sometimes.  But it’s also just how it is, I think.

Has it always been that way for you?

TB:  No.

What do you think accounts for that coming to be?

TB:  Life experience.  Self-evaluation.  Learning to move through the world.  Increased understanding, or an interest in understanding how this all works, how best for me to move through the world, what I’m called to do – all those things, all that sort of self-evaluation that everybody’s got to do at some point, you know?

Some people never do.

TB:  Yeah, some people never do, and that’s probably too bad.  But I think that playing music, and the experience of being onstage, and life, have really sort of joined – it’s all sort of the same thing.  You know, teaching people how to play bass has taught me a lot about the interconnectivity of everything.  The mind is such a tricky thing – you’re mind’s got a mind of it’s own, and it does whatever it wants.  I’m treating it like it’s a tool, sort of like my bass is a tool and it’s something that allows me to play music.  I’m not necessarily “Bass Player”, that doesn’t define me, it’s just something that I do to express music.  And ideally, my brain is just something that I use to function and to create things and to do things, but I don’t need it all the time.  Getting it to turn off and be able to just kind of accept that when you label things as good and bad, it just raises problems and you set up a dichotomy, and then you have to decide which side of the fence you’re on or whatever.  It’s sort of like, there’s no reason to have a good or bad show, you just go have a show and let it be what it is.  And learning that about life has taught me that about music.

And also, I went through some really hard times where I had really bad shows, and I couldn’t figure out why I wasn’t having a good time, and it was mostly just sort of a lack of perspective and presence – I wasn’t really paying attention.  I sort of had my mind somewhere else.  I was thinking about things – thinking about how nice it would be to be at home, or thinking about the guy who’s asleep in the front row of the bluegrass festival, or whatever it was – little things that would take me away from what was the easiest thing to be tuned into, which was just what was going on.  And not being concerned about what’s coming – just sort of go up there and do your thing.

How do you get that to happen for you in the studio?

TB:  I don’t play well in the studio.  I don’t know, the problem with that is it’s all so permanent – there’s people listening, there’s so much pressure.  Even though live shows are recorded, I still feel like I’m going to play it and it’ll be over, and it’ll just be sort of gone.  I don’t get a lot of session work, partly because I’m just like a dude, I’m not like a crazy-good bass player.  The studio isn’t my favorite place in the world.

Is there anything you want to improve in yourself as a performer?

TB:  Yeah, I want to improve as a bass player.  I’d like to be able to sing a little bit more consistently, too.  But as far as the way I feel onstage, the things I say, stage presence – all the stuff that’s performing that’s not musical – I want to continue to grow as musician, but I haven’t had a bad show in, like, six months, because I have an awesome time.  And it seems like the audience is pretty much right there with me.  So I think what I’ve got going now, I’m satisfied with it.  It’ll change.  It’s an ongoing experience to practice – being onstage and being comfortable and playing music is an ongoing practice.  So I’m sure it’ll evolve, but I’m not trying to do anything different at this point.  And that’s because I feel so comfortable doing what I do, that I don’t want to change it necessarily.

It shows.

TB:  Cool.  Mission accomplished!

Thanks again to Travis for taking the time for this in-depth conversation about performance.  I highly recommend to my readers that they experience a Stringdusters show.  Please also visit the Stringdusters’ web store or your local independent music store to check out the Stringdusters’ band and solo recording projects.  — VA