The Big Three Rings of the Musical Circus

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Anyone that plays music semi-seriously will encounter, sooner or later, the Big Three Rings of the Musical Circus.

The first ring is jamming. It’s how most of us start out and how we learn to play consistently, and interact with other musicians. As I’ve said before, the joys of jamming are truly sublime. When you got your mojo working, and you’re playing with some good players, or good friends, or even (if you’re really lucky) good friends who are good players, then it’s an almost effortless musical conversation. It has ebbs and flows, surprises, delights and challenges and they are ALL fun.

What are the challenges I refer to? They can come from a variety of angles – could be a song you don’t know well, some players you’re not used to you, or maybe the general level of musical skill in the jam is toward the upper of, or just beyond, your own abilities. In the wrong setting, these could all be sources of anxiety, but in a good jam, it’s just icing on the cake! Some folks never want to leave the cushy comfort of the first ring.

The second ring is performing. For those of us who are born hams, this stage comes early, and we force it. I think nearly every musician who has picked a while, and found some friends with whom everything clicks, has the “Hey! We should start a band!” epiphany. From there it can go off in pretty much any direction. It can stay loose and casual, with a few party gigs or coffee house appearances from time to time, It can aspire to more than that, and hit some bars or other venues where you’re expected to put on a passable show for four hours at a stretch, with some hope of pay at the end. Or maybe you take the performing thing more seriously, and enjoy the work and care that goes into creating an act that will get work at larger venues and festivals.

You can’t enjoy this second ring, though, unless you have a desire to be the center of attention – to have as many eyeballs as possible on you when you play. That can wear you out, or it can exhilarate you – in fact, it’ll do both at some time or another, and sometimes simultaneously. I love it.

The third ring is recording. As the first ring leads to the second, so does that second ring often lead to the third. Any band that plays gigs will be asked, eventually “You guys got a CD for sale?”. Or prospective employers require a sample before considering you for their venues. Whatever the reason, this third ring is a whole new ballgame. Ain’t nothing quite so humbling (and humiliating) as the recording machine. I know you’ve all done this. You thought you needed to make a CD, so you ran a recorder at one of your gigs. You think you played pretty well, felt pretty good about the performance, but then you listened to the recording.

“Something must have went wrong!”, you exclaim. “I KNOW we sounded better than that!” And even the songs that went pretty well have at least one cringe-worthy clam in them. That clam, that rough split-second, that one flat note – it goes by so fast, you don’t notice it (much) onstage and your audience didn’t mind.But when you hear it on tape, where it will gouge your ears with every listen. So, you go to the studio. Take after take – take your pick! You want the one with only 2 little mistakes, or the 1 with no mistakes, but delivered in a lifeless manner? Turns out the crowd energy is tough to muster in a sterile studio. It’s a catch-22. But if you have the patience, and devote yourself to focus, you can coax a good recording out of the band – most of the time. Hopefully you don’t run out of money first!

If playing music is a three-ring circus, I hope they NEVER strike the tent! (And I’m NOT cleaning up after those elephants!)

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