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In the Hill Country, anyone who wants to play, can play. Photo by Phil Houseal



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Just Play

by Phil Houseal
Sept 14, 2011


A beginning guitar player recently asked me for advice on how to get ready to play music professionally. He was memorizing chords, watching online videos, and listening to tunes he liked. After a frustrating discussion - during which he deflected every suggestion I threw at him - I finally said, “If you want to play; play.”

That was not smart-aleck advice. It really is true.

I thought back to how I got into playing music “professionally.” I was in high school. Sure, I had taken drum lessons. I tried to form a band with my 8th grade friends, but there wasn’t much repertoire written for drums, coronet, and organ. I drummed along with records, and even played as my Dad squeezed out Nat King Cole tunes on his Lowry organ.

But one night I was lying on the living room floor watching a talent contest broadcast from the Iowa State Fair. Instead of listening to the singer, I was focused on the stage band drummer. After a few songs, I literally jumped up and announced, “I can do that!”

I drove into the nearest bar (in small towns in Iowa, they exist at the rate of three per block). The first one I came to had a small country band playing. I noticed there was no drummer, so I walked up to the singer and asked if he needed someone to play drums. He looked at me and said, “Yes.”

I started my drum career that very night.

No amount of preparation can prepare you for playing. At first I wasn’t very good. I rushed; I missed beats; I was sloppy. But as I pounded along every weekend for the next several years, I learned what it took to play music with others. I learned how to listen, how to play with substitute musicians, how to back up bad singers, how to entertain surly and tipsy crowds.

I learned how to play even when I didn’t feel like playing. I learned how to fake playing when I didn’t know the song.

I don’t know if other musicians experience this, but I discovered a strange phenomenon while working with a newly-formed band in Colorado. We lived together and rehearsed for many weeks, putting together a large set list to get us through a four-hour gig. Before we booked ourselves in a club, we thought it would be a good idea to invite friends and relatives to a backyard party so we could play in front of a live audience.

Good thing. We weren’t nearly as prepared as we’d thought. During rehearsal, you have the luxury of starting and stopping, working out tricky passages or even starting over. But in front of an audience - even a friendly one - you are working without a net. You kick off a song, you’d better have the correct key and tempo. If you forget the lyrics, you make them up. If you blow the lead, you just keep going (old Floyd used to say if you mess up a lick, the next time it comes around you mess it up the same way, so people think you meant to do it).

But once we got through that shakedown cruise, we were ready. We owned those songs, and went on to play up and down the foothills in all types of clubs.

As I finished visiting with the young guitar player, I realized the advice applies to us all, whatever we are endeavoring to accomplish. My brother, who is a successful investor, warns me to avoid “the paralysis of analysis.” If you want to sing; sing. If you want to write; write. If you want to dance; dance.

Anywhere you live, there are ample opportunities to perform. Sure, take lessons. But then go to Luckenbach and sit on the fringe of the song circle. Invite yourself to one of the many jam sessions that go on around here. Participate in Dialogues & Dances. Find three other guys just a little bit better than you and invite them over to sit in your back yard and help each other.

So here is my advice, young man: If you want to play guitar; play guitar. Start a band. Write a poem. Try out for the play. Join the chorus.

Before you know it, you’ll be giving advice to some young kid who wants to play as good as you do.