Despite the back pain, Chris and I made it to the Pickin’ Porch at the Bristol Mall last night. Ron Short had invited us to join him onstage with his string band class. It was all I could do to stand upright, so Chris was in charge of toting the equipment where it needed to go. But everything got squared away in time, and the whole bunch of us had a terrific time. Best of all, Ron asked us to do a couple of songs on our own, so we did “Raleigh and Spencer” and “Going Down to Tampa”, both of which seemed to go over well.
I don’t know if anyone outside the mall heard us–it’s an AM radio station, and they cut the power after sunset–but it was still fun to be part of an old-fashioned live broadcast.
Monday Chris and I drove to a fairly remote part of West Virginia, to stay with Ginny Hawker and Tracy Schwarz and take two days of singing lessons from them. We showed up in the evening and visited for awhile, then slept in their guest house. (We also moaned to ourselves about the rainy and cold weather, since it meant we wouldn’t be able to play music on their extremely large and comfortable porch).
Tuesday we began with Ginny telling us to turn off the recorder and listen as she explained a few things about singing, based mainly on her background in the Primitive Baptist church. Then we tried a little Primitive Baptist singing ourselves. Then we listened to a song very carefully (“Don’t Cheat in Our Hometown” by Keith Whitley and Ricky Skaggs), and line by line reviewed the subtleties in Whitley’s singing (and Skaggs’s harmonies). Then Tracy came in and we talked about some of the things we had heard in the Whitley/Skaggs song, which led us off into general questioning about things like tone, phrasing, and intonation.
After lunch we reconvened and talked some more. Eventually Chris and I got out our instruments; we would play them a song we had been working on, and they would then critique us, telling us what we had done wrong and what we had done well. Often they knew the original song well enough to tell us where we had strayed from the path, and always they encouraged us to go back and study our sources very carefully. By the end of the day we were convinced that we’d make some significant progress if we just spent the second day working through a variety of songs Chris and I had worked up.
Well, that was the plan. The reality was that as I got out of the shower Wednesday morning I somehow wrenched my back, in a way that had immobilized me in the past. But I was still somewhat mobile, so I decided that the wisest thing to do was to drive Chris home before things got any worse. Chris packed up, helped me crawl to the car, and told Tracy and Ginny that we would have to leave. We agreed to finish up at a later date. I was able to drive home, and I’ve been crawling around the house since then.
Disappointing, but it may work out well. Even after one day of lessons we came home with months of work to do. If we get some of the easy stuff cleared away, it may make for a more productive lesson when we do finally return.
We played last night at Java J’s, a coffee shop in Abingdon, and we’re happy about how it went. Plenty of folks from St. Peter came to check us out; it made for a full house, and lots of business for the proprietors. The sound system was good, and the room was comfortable. We wore our stage outfits–work shirts, pants, and boots–which were a bit warm, as was the room, but even that started to feel good after awhile.
As usually happens when we tackle the Next Big Step, we were slightly underprepared–not because we hadn’t worked hard enough, but because the goal was just a bit beyond us. We had to do thirty songs over the three hours we played, some of them relative newcomers to our repertoire, and so there was the occasional flubbed word, missed chord change, and blank mind at the beginning of a verse. Even that was good, though; part of our purpose in doing such a thing is to learn how to recover gracefully from mistakes in real time.
And we started learning things that can only be learned during a real performance. Such as:
- Our single microphone setup worked fine for the songs, since we both sing loud, but I had to lean in very close for my between-song patter to be heard (I’m thinking now about using a separate microphone just for MC work).
- They had background music running through a stereo when we arrived, and we should have turned it back on between sets.
- Playing in a noisy environment is different.
- Folks come to a coffee shop more to converse than to be entertained, and so their attention will mostly not be on you. Which doesn’t mean that they aren’t enjoying the music, even if they mostly don’t acknowledge your existence.
- Because folks come to converse, you need to be careful about performing material that demands their attention–they may not like having their attention diverted.
- Three hours is a long time to perform, even with a couple of ten-minute breaks. We’ve played in jams for three hours, but performing seems to drain you more.
- Musicians are night owls for a reason. There’s no way you can regularly do the day’s work at the very end of the day; you need time to wind down. Even though I was exhausted, I had a hard time getting to sleep.
We’re now looking for an opportunity to stage a weekly performance that is two or three hours long, perhaps a weeknight or during lunch. Six months of that would teach us a lot.