The other night, I was having a conversation with an old music buddy of mine about performances.
Specifically, memorable, live music performances.
We concluded that the ones that really stuck out for us and stood the test of time were the ones that were phenomenally polished. So polished, in some cases, that they were even more perfect than the record. And that was without any technology to “help” them along.
My music buddy comes from a Barbershop Singing background, so he knows a lot about what it takes to achieve a polished performance. With Barbershopping — especially with Barbershop choruses, which can have more than 100 voices singing at once — every nuance is critical to the performance sounding like a single voice.
They don’t just get down to the word level or the syllable level; they get down to the beginning-, middle-, and end-of-a-syllable level. That’s how much of a fine level of detail it takes to pull off a flawless Barbershop performance. And how is that achieved?
Through practice, that’s how.
There’s no shortcut, no “trick” — and certainly no “corrective” technology — that can be applied to create that kind of performance. It simply has to be rehearsed — over and over again, with 100+ people working as one — to reach that level of perfection.
During our conversation, the term “woodshedding” came up to describe this process. The term comes from the idea of going out to the “woodshed” in the back yard (or some similar, solitary place), and working at something, over and over again, until it’s perfected.
Woodshedding is a term that’s used a lot among professional musicians in Nashville, as in “yeah, I had to do a lot of woodshedding this past week to learn my bass parts for 40 new songs before I got on the bus and started that new artist road gig on Friday morning.”
True pros know the value of woodshedding. It can mean the difference between having a long, sustained career, or remaining a wannabe. It can mean the difference between really standing out above the crowd, or being “just another musician.” It can mean the difference between getting a lucrative gig, or not. Or just as important, keeping the gig or not.
My buddy and I agreed that there doesn’t appear to be as much woodshedding going on among live performers nowadays as there used to be. For many newer artists, either the performances just aren’t that polished at all, or they have to rely on a lot of technology to try to “fix” their inadequacies on the spot. And of course, all the “fixing” in the world — no matter how “good” the technology might be — can cover up every weakness. The audience just doesn’t “feel” the performance the same way it would with a truly polished performer.
I’ve been lucky enough to work closely with an artist who epitomizes the value — and the results — of woodshedding:
International guitar virtuoso, Tommy Emmanuel.
Tommy isn’t just a musical genius and a consummate performer (if you’ve never seen him live, it’s an otherworldly experience beyond words); he’s without question the most precise musician I’ve ever seen in my life. And he’s precise in not just a technical way, but also in a musical way — an emotional way — that just connects with his audience.
Tommy is best known for his ability to flawlessly play several extremely intricate parts (bass lines, chords, melody, rhythm) on a single acoustic guitar, all at the same time — often at a million miles an hour — without ever missing a note, while oozing musicality and emotion from every pore.
But his slower, less technically-complex performances are just as impressive, and beautiful. The true greats know that it’s actually a lot harder to play slowly with the same level of accuracy and emotion as it is to play lightning-fast. That can only be achieved through practice, practice, practice.
Tommy is also known for his mesmerizing improvisational skills. But even all that spontaneity is rooted in countless hours of woodshedding. As the result of endless practice, Tommy is so intimately comfortable with the structured components of his music, that they become second nature, freeing him to improvise with wild abandon, while maintaining the same level of precision and emotion.
Here’s an example of Tommy’s musical prowess and performance genius. It’s a brand-new video of a live performance Tommy did of a song called “The Trails,” the studio version of which I had the honor of recording at Azalea Studios for his Little By Little CD:
Yep, Tommy Emmanuel is most definitely a woodshedder!
Even after performing live for nearly 60 years (since the early days in Australia when he and his brother, Phil, were in their single digits), Tommy still rehearses all the time. He works a piece until he’s got every nuance down to the point where it’s committed to muscle memory and just becomes a part of him — to the point where his guitar, his fingers, and his entire being are ONE. Just like a Barbershop chorus. And there’s just no way to accomplish that without practice. Or as we like to say in Nashville, “woodshedding.”
If you’re a performer of any kind, taking woodshedding as seriously as anything else in your musical life will go a long way to making you stand out above your peers, connect more deeply with your audience, and build a career with “legs.”
Are you a regular “woodshedder?” Do you have any special techniques you employ to help you with the process? How often do you play just for the sake of rehearsing, and for how long? I’d love to know, so please comment below.
About the Author
is an independent music producer and engineer, published author, music career coach, and co-founder of the Azalea Music Group in Nashville. He helps artists and songwriters reach their fullest sonic and emotional impact with the recordings he produces, and also teaches them how to do it themselves. His diverse list of clients includes Davy Jones of the Monkees, Grammy-winning songwriter Don Henry, and international guitar virtuosos Tommy Emmanuel and Muriel Anderson.