Saturday, January 5, 2013


Telluride 2012, Andy Thorn, Jake Joliff, John Frazier, Bridget Kearney, Shad Cobb, Jeff Autry, Rebecca Frazier

I recently played a set with John Frazier & Friends at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. After we played, a pregnant mother of a 2 year old approached me and asked, "How are you able to play guitar with a baby and a 3 year old?"

It turned out she had traveled to the festival as a finalist in the Troubadour Competition. She explained that she wanted to improve her guitar skills, but she wasn't sure how, and she couldn't find the time. We chatted briefly about some improvement techniques and about how a mother can fit guitar practice into her busy day.

This got me to thinking about chops.


How to get them. 

How to find the time to get them. 

How to  make the time to get them.

What they truly mean to a musician.

How they apply to life in all aspects.

How they affect our self worth as musicians and as people and in social and professional settings. 

How they create pressure, or not. 

How a young person can get wrapped up in acquiring them, and maybe lose perspective about the big picture (of music and of life)

When I was 20, I saw a beautiful blonde woman playing excellent banjo with a regional bluegrass band. I was floored. I approached her after the show. She was busy chasing a 2 year old. I asked her, "How do you play like that?" She barely had time to talk to me, and it was obvious her banjo skills were the last thing on her mind. This made me think she was even cooler--here she could play with such dexterity, but she didn't even care? She said, "I worked on it when I was younger, and now I'm too busy to play much anymore."

I was mystified. It would take me years to understand how to apply practice techniques that would improve my own "chops." I was one of the many young musicians who had grown up playing classical, pop, and folk, and therefore learned other people's arrangements from sheet music or recordings. I certainly didn't feel like a musician. While I was doing a decent job rendering other people's songs and arrangements--and even playing in bands that created original music--I felt compelled to learn how to "create" music. 

I was a music major at the time. Did this mean I was writing and arranging my own music? No. Did it mean I knew how to get "inside" a tune? That I could improvise? Not really. I was certainly learning a lot, with my 3.9 GPA in Music Theory, creating SATB Bach-style arrangements. But I wasn't learning how to play in bands. I had the task of figuring out, on my own, how to acquire chops. 

Chops are enigmatic, though. First of all, you have to think they really matter if you are going to invest the time to acquire them. There are many other things to do in a day. When you're not in the habit of sitting down with the guitar for a couple hours, every single day, it can seem like a huge time drain, and--let's face it--a bit frivolous. There are a million reasons why you shouldn't practice. You need to work, work out, get your hair cut, study for an exam, pay bills, walk the dog, shop for a birthday present....the list goes on and on. And there are the people around you--your roommates or your parents  or your kids might think you aren't being productive while you practice, and you don't want to be judged. It's better to be seen mowing the lawn, after all. What does personal practice time really "contribute" to the world?

It's a decision one needs to make. A person needs to feel that acquiring musicianship really matters. Only then can she spend the time necessary to improve. And once she sees results, the commitment to playing music becomes a happy addiction. It's a force of habit. It's exciting but sometimes monotonous. It feels weird to miss a day. It takes a bit of an addictive personality. 

Where does the time come from? When you are compelled to do something, you make the time. Our band's original banjo player, Aaron, would wake up at 6 am to practice before heading to his college classes. I have friends who have quit their day jobs and cashed in their retirement savings, just to allow for a year or two to practice. Once I graduated, I took a job as a waitress so I could work at night and play guitar all day. I also gigged at night.

I still think it takes a bit of an obsessive personality to spend so much time picking the guitar. In my twenties, I didn't want to spend the time to shop for clothes or shoes. And at one point, I stopped doing hair appointments, presumably to save time. I slept on a mattress on the floor of a couple basements. More than a few times, I never figured out my next place to live until my lease expired; this landed me on a friend's couch or floor quite often. I never minded; I'd play guitar in the park (alone or with friends) for six hours and then shower at the gym before returning at midnight to my couch-surfing quarters. When I look at photos from those days, I see a person in worn-down shoes, clothes that are ten years old, and shaggy, mud-brown hair. (The next time you see a shaggy-looking musician, consider that they aren't even aware of their ridiculous appearance. I thought I looked good during those days. And there I was onstage at the Boulder Theater in a jean skirt from middle school and water-stained clogs that needed to be thrown away)

This brings me to the next topic: what do chops mean to a musician? To someone who is obsessed, they need to mean everything. Chops need to really matter. Only later in life did I step back and say, "Oh, it doesn't really matter that I'm not great at guitar." I may have tied up my self-worth in my guitar chops. 

Yes, you do need to care about it in order to make the time to do it; you have to think it matters. But at the same time, you have to realize that it doesn't matter at all. Nobody else cares how good or bad you are, unless you are so ridiculously good that it reaches a high-frequency pitch of virtuosity.

But even the masters have to learn how to separate their musicianship from their feelings of self-worth.  It's a struggle for them, I'm sure. If you're that obsessed with obtaining and maintaining technical mastery, it would be difficult to be married and take care of children. It would be difficult to have friends and to show up for the hospital when a friend is ill, or bring food to a friend when she has a baby. 

Chops. Some people remain on a lifelong quest to acquire chops; some people acquire chops for a few years and then let it slide. Just like anything, chops require maintenance. I was a little annoyed when I first realized this. I learned how to speak German as a teenage exchange student. I thought I would always speak fluently, but the skill faded away with lack of upkeep. If someone tries to converse in German with me, some of it comes back awkwardly, in bits and pieces, as if from a dream long ago. So it goes with music. If you don't play for a while, you don't necessarily lose everything you've acquired; but you do need to work a lot harder just to get back to where you were. And so it is with everything in life. You learn how to do Calculus in high school. You acquire skills to take care of a newborn. You gain a personal level of mastery, and then you may let it slide, either because you don't need it, or you don't deem it important enough to maintain. Sometimes with music, people get burnt out and lose motivation and need a break. Or they are consumed by work and family, and they can't realistically fit the music in.

Since moving to Nashville, I've learned a lot from masters here. I suppose I assumed that they'd reached a level of mastery that was untouchable. Even their own lack of upkeep would never effect their virtuosity. They were all set, and the rest of us peons needed to keep on practicing just for the privilege of eating their dust. But when I got to know some of them, I realized that they weren't able to take their own mastery for granted. If they weren't playing sessions all day and/or gigging all the time, their chops would get rusty, too. They'd need to practice to get back to the technical level for which they were known. Some of them are players as well as engineers; so when they are engineering a record, they might not be able to play for a month or two. 

Really, what did I expect? Does an athlete train for a marathon, and then maintain that level of fitness with zero upkeep? But realizing that even my heroes had to work to maintain their chops really helped me. Because there was no ego involved. For them, it was almost like cleaning their houses: "I need to do laundry. I need to get my chops back up for that upcoming session. I gotta grocery shop and go to the bank."

The pressure is off for a lot of these people, I saw. They already know how to be virtuosic, but sometimes they have to let it slide. But they know they can get there again. So maybe that's why young people put so much pressure on themselves regarding chops. They really don't know if they'll ever get there. So if they care enough to want technical mastery, they need to go to extreme measures to get it, including tying it up with their egos. 

It appears that the moral of my story is that chops really don't matter. I'm not saying that at all. First of all, chops matter as much as you think they do. They are of relative importance, both to the player and audience members. Second, music is all about feeling. Chops aren't crucial to creating feeling from music, but chops can be inspiring and thrilling and exciting for those who witness the spectacle. And third, one who has acquired chops might be a little better equipped to relate feeling in his music, since he has invested so much time and has so much experience. That said, would you rather listen to a voice coach who has invested 30 years perfecting his vocal technique, or to Neil Young singing one of his poignant self-penned songs?

Late one night in college, trying to study, I couldn't help but stare at these words that were scratched onto a desk at the Law Library at the University of Michigan: 

"Moderation in all things." 

Some wise-ass had scratched underneath:

"Don't do things half-ass!"

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