Behavioral Studies

Behavioral Studies- Road Dog- Spring ’02

I performed at a festival last summer with a bunch of skilled and hard-working acoustic musicians from across the spectrum of our music world. Among them was a well-known female singer-songwriter, whose recent success has enabled her to cross over into the worlds of big radio airplay, touring with a band, playing to audiences numbering in the thousands rather than in the hundreds, and generally being a pretty big-time draw across the US and Canada. After her set I heard lots of grumblings from the sound crew and the presenters, and I heard the same from the backstage crowd of musicians and insiders who gathered that night around the buffet and coffee lines.

It turns out that she was a real pain- during her sound check she had generally abused the poor sound staff, which was already worn out from a week of 20 hour days. Her agent had forwarded a backstage hospitality rider that ran three full pages, and which included a 20-ingredient recipe for a salad big enough to fill a Volkswagen Beetle, a salad which the presenters were required to prepare exactly as specified, right down to the two heads of organic arugula which were to be torn, not cut, into bite-sized pieces during its preparation. Her performance had been unfocused and unprofessional, and she had insisted on ending her set, which had started 15 minutes late due to earlier performers’ encores, exactly on time despite her fans’ and the presenter’s entreaties to continue. It was a dreary tale, one that we commonly associate with prima donnas and self-important performing artists at their worst , yet I must admit that I found in this episode a cause for celebration. Weird, or what?

Here’s why- it’s because it’s so rare in the acoustic world to run across this kind of behavior. If you look around at the music stores and their staffs, at the guitar makers, at the radio stations who support acoustic music, at the concert promoters and at the performers, there’s an unusual amount of solidarity and support, and an unusually high percentage of generally good folks to be found throughout the industry.

Most acoustic musicians, and most of those who make or sell the instruments, who teach the skills and who broadcast and present the music, are doing it because they love it, because they’re excited by this creative wooden world of sounds and skills and emotions, and they were first attracted to it for the same reasons that I was. I had one of these seemingly common epiphanies at a coffeehouse in Salt Lake City, hearing great acoustic blues performed right in front of me, and vowed right then and there that I would learn how to do that as soon as I could. It’s not trite to say that it changed my life, and it’s quite common to hear this type of story from all manners of players, builders, DJ’s, concert promoter and music store owners

Even better was my discovery that there was then, (and there is now, even more so) a network of similar-minded people, and since I can assume that I have this major passion in common with them, it makes it pretty likely that I will enjoy their company. As I travel, I feel much more kinship with this group that I would commonly expect to find among the population at large, just because I carry a couple of guitar cases into a Taylor dealer or a theater on my musical mission. It’s a labor of love for just about all of us- it chose us almost without our conscious assent, and it continues to color our lives with music’s vivid palette of experiences on an almost daily basis.

So I found optimism in the churlish attitude of the performer at the festival, because her attitude was so uncommon, and stood in such contrast to my normal experiences. While I surely know that there are parts of the music business that are more about business than they are about music, and that there are lots of people who regard music as a marketing vehicle rather than a vocation, in the acoustic world I rarely encounter that perspective. Instead I find grateful enthusiasm that we’ve all found something that seems to challenge both right and left sides of the brain, and encourages the better sides of our emotions and spirits.

I spent all four issues of Wood and Steel in 2001 carrying on about how one should practice the guitar for maximum return, and explaining how to learn more about amplifying the instrument and about related electronics issues. Now I want to add this important caveat: I know of no study which demonstrates any connection whatsoever between your technical skill on the instrument and your level of enjoyment of it. In the Fall 2001 Wood and Steel, Bob Taylor observed out how a Big Baby Taylor guitar became a musical and social conduit for him one night on a Canadian campout with friends and employees, instead of representing a series of technical accomplishments. I’m here to say the same thing in a different way.

As I write this, and as you read it, aren’t we all pretty sure that there are lots of people with guitars, sitting on porches and parks, in living room and churches all over the country, playing music with a few friends, co-workers or fellow parishioners, strumming whatever chords that they happen to know, not in the least concerned about instrumental techniques, and I bet that we also know that these folks are having just about as much fun as people can have with music. Sure we all want to be skilled players, and the desire to improve is generally a good one, but we also need to recognize that no one has ever linked skill to enjoyment, and that celebrating the joys of making music is what all of this hoopla is really about. We know this, we recognize this trait in each other, and I hope that we don’t lose an appreciation for what a great gift that we have been given.