Musicians wrestle everywhere

So, it’s done, dusted, and thoroughly enjoyed, the fabulous gig with Jo Collins and friends (and family!) at the Bedford Esquires. Many new and lovely friends made, much fun had, and all those worries and nerves in the run-up giving way to the lovely gooey post-gig feeling of ‘Phwoar, that was good!’

(Some of these feelings may change when video footage of my performance appears — I’m not always my own worst critic, but I can be my own worst worrier. Then again, I worry that if I didn’t worry, I wouldn’t do the practice that’s needed to avoid the situations I worry about. It’s very worrying.)

As I remember discussing with someone that evening, one of the best things about working with Jo is just how much there always is still to discover — she has done so much work, in such a variety of different styles and with such a range of musicians, and as this was something of a retrospective concert a great deal of it was on display. So all of us contributing performers — and there were a lot of us! — not only got to have fun with our bit, but could sit back and watch a fantastic show full of songs that many of us were hearing for the first time. Besides the songs from the wonderful new album, Decade, there were Irish songs, bits of Watercolours and Mankind Walks, and some great covers including Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Nina Simone (OK, in fact the latter song was by Bennie Benjamin, Gloria Caldwell and Sol Marcus, but they wrote it for her). The sound system blew during one rather loud Dylan cover, which just goes to show that even God doesn’t want Dylan to go electric.

The gig was both filmed and recorded, so with any luck there will be video (and maybe a live CD) available some time soon. The whole evening was in support of Breakthrough Breast Cancer, so — if you’d like to give a little support — please do consider visiting Jo’s JustGiving page and making a donation.

Special thanks to all the wonderful people who sang, played and otherwise contributed skills and support, and to all the friends old and new who came along and made this a really special and memorable evening. Now we just have to bug Jo to write another album’s worth of songs, so we can do it all over again …


The title of this post comes from an Emily Dickinson poem which I rather liked. The other thought — what with all my worries and last-minute nerves — was going to be ‘A Musician’s Trial’ after this little number from Quips and Quiddits by John Banister Tabb:

They brought him up before the Judge.
‘What is the fellow’s crime?’
‘Your Honor, he has murdered Scores,
And boasts of beating Time.’

Well, we’ve all worked with people like that …

Practice makes for prevarication

So, picture the situation: you’ve got a gig coming up in January. You’re well out of practice thanks to a stressful job that left little time for music or other fun things. You suddenly have the glorious free time of Christmas to get back on the instrument and work up your skills.

Then of course, first day off, you go down with a cold.

Returning to your instrument after periods of not playing seriously is a depressing thing. The first frustration is usually that your brain is now ahead of your body: you know how the music should sound, but your fingers don’t quite fall into place as they should. Lots of small and fundamental elements of playing have to be carefully worked over from a much more basic level than your mind appreciates. You want to be playing music, of course, but if you jump straight into complex pieces without going through this fundamental work then you’ll only end up more depressed because you’ll fail. It doesn’t help to remind yourself that those fundamental elements, those long notes and scales and studies and so on, are music too and need to be treated as such. You know what pieces it is you want to play!

The more insidious factor is that really it’s your brain more than your fingers that’s the problem. You remember being able to play stuff, and past intensive practice seems to have hardwired certain phrases and musical elements into place. The trouble is, these things have ‘bled’ over time through lack of attention and now actually though you seem to have them superficially under control, they may actually need more work in order to undo bad habits that have crept in.

All the while that you are doing this, your brain is trying to get in the way and tell you how bad it all sounds, remind you how good you used to be, and hit you with guilt trips for lack of practice. Much of what you need to do seems to be keeping this ’orrible, nagging part of your mind distracted while you get on with the work you need to do. And of course, it is trying to distract you in return — e.g. by getting you to start a blog instead of doing the things that would actually help. (After all, you’ve got a cold, and you — well, I — play a damn woodwind instrument. Not a good combination, is it?)

So, in a blatant beg for first real comments on the blog, I’m asking musician friends: what are the things you find useful to beat the post-lack-of-practice blues and get back those good and productive practice habits? (Non-musician friends are also welcome to give analogous techniques from their areas of experience. Look, I’m trying to get comments here, I need to spread the net wide.)

Meanwhile, my cold is clearing up, so I’m off to see if I can’t play a scale or two. After all, I’ve got to be ready for that gig I’m playing on 14th January. Wish me luck!