A post from the road
To be specific, from a road in Vancouver; the gleeful novelty of blogging from my phone is giving me tingles and also thumb cramps. I wanted to make a small departure from what is typically a news-only blog to muse briefly on something that's been on my mind. For those seeking extra CFord news (show announcements, recording updates, girth measurements, etc.), you'll have to wait till at least tomorrow. Alternatively, I do have a great show coming up tonight and you can get any news straight from the horse's mouth (or even better, from mine) at the Princeton Pub at Powell and Victoria.
So with that aside: the meat of this blog. I've had an inordinate amount of conversations over the last few months about what it means to be musical (or artistic in general), and what makes some people more musical or artistic than others. I guess, too, that it's been on my mind more proximally as I've been reading a book on the subject - Guitar Zero, by Gary Marcus - in which the subject is explored from the perspective of an adult musical novice trying to develop musicality at an advanced age. In conversations I've had, I've noticed a general assumption people seem to make that I'd like to address (and correct) before letting you all go about your day:
(Warning: sweeping generalization follows these parentheses. Feel free to refute in the comments.) People seem to assume that the world is divided into naturally artistic/musical people and people who just "don't have it." This bugs the heck out of me. On the one hand, it's flattering to think myself one of the "lucky few," who won a genetic lottery of sorts, and it's certainly humbling to think that but for coincidence I might not be able to sing "Twinkle, Twinkle," let alone my own words and music. Looking past that, however, it's a frustrating thought for me that someone might listen to me perform and write off what is generally the product of a lot of my own hard work, self-scrutiny, and practice as simple "talent." It's not easy to give off the impression of a "good" performance, and it often ends up being the case that I'll disagree with external assessments of when my voice has been "on." To quote Jeff Tweedy, "I shake like a toothache every time I hear myself sing."
All of which is to say, if you tell yourself "I just can't sing," you're doing yourself a major disservice. You can sing. You're probably not trying hard enough - which is 100% understandable. I don't try hard enough at basketball. I wanted really badly to be a basketball player when I was in high school. I would play every day at lunch with my friends, and I'd focus on my strengths - I could take the ball away from people, and I was tenaciously energetic. Everything else, I was very, very bad at. I can't shoot worth a damn. I can't dribble very well. I'm too short and I can't jump high enough to dunk at an elementary school gym (I tried quite recently to do this - all in the name of science, my friends). But if I really wanted to, I could devote my life to learning how to overcome my natural weaknesses. I could spend hours every day trying to sink baskets, adjusting my hand position, thinking about follow-through and spin and grip - just like the experts who now play the game professionally did as children. I think people see music and singing as different than athletics in this regard, but in my opinion there's little difference - it's all about teaching yourself self-reliance and confidence in your own instrument. I think it's the same for any discipline or art - I truly believe that if I studied hard at it, I could be very good at sketching, despite being currently very, very, atrociously bad at sketching (anybody wanna play Draw Something with me?).
So my point is this: musicians or singers who seem to have a natural 'talent' for singing are all in fact the beneficiaries of years of practice and have confidence in their own abilities after repeated validation by their peers and instructors. If singing is important to you and if you want to see it get better, you'll have to be willing to work on it before you start to see results.
If you find yourself in the self-improvement mood (I happen to think you're perfect just the way you are), I would recommend sitting down with a piano, guitar, or pre-recorded song and try recording yourself (nothing fancy - an iPhone mic or similar will do fine) singing alongside some simple instrumentation, clearly hitting the notes. For example, the most basic iteration of this experiment would be playing a single white key on a piano and trying to match the frequency with your voice for a few beats before moving to another single white key and trying to match the new pitch. Then you can play the recording back to yourself and listen for moments where you were on/off key or beat. It sounds a little weird and a little lame, but you'll never be a great singer without understanding exactly what your strengths and weaknesses are.
I'm not by any means 100% happy with my voice. There are things I know it can't do. There are thousands of times when I know I've missed a note, or a beat, or gone flat. But knowing exactly what you've done wrong lets you work purposefully to change those errors and get better.
Well, Internet - now look what you made me do. I've written my first stream-of-consciousness/motivational speech blog. Anyways, I hope that helps someone, and if not I hope it's at least coherent to read.
Before I go (see you all tonight!), I do want to share a great video of Pete Townshend playing an acoustic version of "We Won't Get Fooled Again" that I noticed this morning on this out-of-the-way site called Rolling Stone (song starts at the end of the interview, about twenty minutes in):
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