Muscle Memory Versus Plain Old Living


The hard part of songwriting — and believe me, there are many hard parts to choose from — is that nagging fraudulent feeling we experience when we finally corner ourselves and sit down to try to create something. It’s important to remember this feeling is universal among creative types and that, even though you are in that weird echo chamber by yourself sweating bullets, you are not alone. It proves that we are taking it seriously and I suppose nothing of worth would ever be made if we didn’t care, but it seems we always hold ourselves to a higher standard than anyone else, reserving our meanest and lowest shots for the undeserving wretches we think we are. I've got news for you, we’re not Hitler and we’re trying to make something nice for ourselves and others — so let’s find our way out of the maze of doubt.

Let me compare a fictional composite of many of my students to a fictionalized young musician (name available on request, but I’d rather not...) who suffered from the opposite problem — an overly high opinion of himself. Keeping in mind how closely related these two delusional states are, here goes.

My composite student has a lot of life experience and varying degrees of muscle memory as it relates to playing and singing. This person may not be a pro, but seems to know what the really good stuff is. Let’s call this student Pat, after the gender-free character on SNL. Pat has lawyered, doctored, taught, parented, traveled and fought the good fight all of his or her adult life, all the while secretly harboring a wish to do something more creative. It’s important to know that Pat has already created quite a bit of goodwill and had a positive effect on many lives. This of course has time away from the sometimes selfish pursuit of musical prowess and the ego-building that might accompany it.

It’s important to remember that a healthy ego is a good thing and an inflated one is not. Meet McCool, the hot shot music school kid who gets A’s without trying and already has a hot little band playing around with fans drooling over his chops. I have seen this young gun on occasion and experienced the attitude emanates like cheap cologne from the bandstand when spotlight is focused on him. This is someone who might be humbled if he could stop listening to himself for a minute or two.

The celebration of early success is always accompanied in my mind by the thought that there has been no real test, no actual risk of failure — certainly never anything resembling failure itself. Straight A’s are good, but the occasional F is even better — it gives you something to sing about. Here’s where you come in...

While brushing up on your rudiments and trying to play catch up with others who might have the advantage in technique, remind yourself that you are walking around with something only a few bumps in the road can provide: Life experience. We have won and we have lost and slickness only counts on Madison Ave. What you are listening to when music really moves you, is someone sharing something other than a facility gained through endless hours in a rehearsal room. While technique is wonderful to listen to, it isn’t everything.

Appearing in the news recently (and on a stage I was lucky enough to be near last trip to Nashville) is a guy by the name of Doug Seegers. (Like that name!) If you haven’t  heard his story, it is amazing. Until recently, this 62 year old singer was sleeping under bridges in Nashville and eating at soup kitchens. His life and his dream of singing for others was seriously derailed and headed for a disastrous finish. Here's his story as it appears in Rolling Stone magazine. Suffice it to say, he has a wonderful voice and uses it to express something deeply emotional and earned through years of hard living. His is a perfect combination of real talent and a life outside the bubble of privilege and comfort. A rare case of muscle memory balanced with plain old living, but don’t think he’s the only one who has something to say — you’ve probably lived a little yourself.

AuthorJohn Sieger