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.
Fett, loved this article, inspires me to keep working at things, examine every spoke on the wheel. Thanks!
Thanks for sharing, Steve. “Every spoke on the wheel” – like that one! Keep on keepin’ on… 🙂
Hey Fett, VERY cool watching this guy do his thing. IS woodshedding in fact a dying habit? Alas…it explains all the mediocrity we’re surrounded by these days. My version of what you’re talking about is, ‘Being good enough is NOT good enough. What can I deliver that’s ABSOLUTELY FABULOUS??’
Good philosophy, Jordy! I think one possible factor in woodshedding being less prevalent is that the music industry today is no longer controlled by gatekeepers, whom artists had to get past in order to have a career, so they had to be better than outstanding. But it was a double-edged sword, because the gatekeepers also held sway over more than just the quality of the music, and not always in positive ways. The flip side is that today, without the gatekeepers, a lot more stuff gets through than used to. Fortunately for us, as music consumers, we have lots more selection than in the past, and we’re in a position to decide what we like and don’t like. May the quality of the music speak for itself! 🙂
I’m new to music…my piano teacher told me I needed to start woodshedding!! great way to find out just what it is……..
and now to actually go off and do it!
I know it will be well worth the effort, Elizabeth. So, how has your woodshedding been going…? 🙂
Hey Fett ! Love the article ! It has created a whole new level of “drive” for me personally. I’ve always been a perfectionist anyway. I guess I’m not wrong in wanting my performances perfect after all ! Okay, well…. Back to dungeon for more rehearsal ! Best regards !
Hi Mark. There’s nothing wrong with being a perfectionist as long as the joy of the music doesn’t take a back seat to it. Happy woodshedding! 🙂
Wow This was great. A real eye opener. I’ve been doing some wood shedding. I need more.
Practice makes perfect, David… 😉
Woodshedding is very important…but if you’re a guitar player from the 80s like me it’s Wood-Shredding lol 😉
Ha! Love that one, Chris! Keep on shreddin’! 😀
Thanks my friend 🙂
Hey Fett, great article bud, Tommy is my all time favorite guitarist as he plays classical gas better than Mason Williams ever could. but kudos to him for writing it and sharing it with the world.
I would love to see Tommy, but his tour dates don’t typically include Florida unfortunately.
I promise Tommy is worth the drive to see in an area outside your own. Hearing him is one thing; seeing him perform in person takes everything to a whole new level!
Thanks for responding,
I second that..and 3rd it 🙂
Great article! Although I’ve been playing assorted instruments since my youth, it isn’t until quite recently that I realised how important practice is. So a lot more woodshedding for me! 🙂
Tommy is awesome!
Thanks much for taking the time to comment, Håkan. Yes, Tommy is amazing. Truly one of a kind. Thanks for keeping the music alive in Sweden!
Awesome song and clear showing the value of woodshedding. I need to practice all performance pieces that way, especially my original songs–just because i wrote them doesn’t mean am accurate let alone wonderful at performing them–and I compose on a keyboard so I really need to create my sheet music for guitar and voice and practice those. Just as this master obviously practiced his original piece a kazillion times to get it this good, reminds me that basically getting to be great means doing the work, and the work does pay off in how well the song reaches the heart.Thanks for the encouragement!
8-12 5 nights a week since Christmas, 1 hr every day prior to that. It all pays off. Thanks for the article – a reminder of how important the practice is.
Hey Gary! There’s just no replacement for actually performing, whether it’s in rehearsal or at a gig. It’s the 10,000 hours thing — the more you do it, the closer you become to the level of mastery. Great to see how much you’re playing! Thanks for commenting.
WOW! Just what I needed to read today, and the perfect artist to witness. Tommy is a true inspiration and I’m motivated to dig deeper into my craft. THANK YOU so much for this article, and for sharing the excellence of Tommy.
Yep, Tommy is a force of nature, and very inspiring. I find it fascinating that, even at his level, he never stops rehearsing! Thanks for your comment.
Are you a regular “woodshedder?” Yes. It’s imperative; however, I do enjoy it, too.
Do you have any special techniques you employ to help you with the process? If the gig is several days away, I try to work a new challenge into what I’m going to be playing so that it has time to “settle” in my fingers well before the gig. However, if I come up with something the day before, I don’t play it because this settling time is very important. I save day-before challenges for the next gig.
How often do you play just for the sake of rehearsing, and for how long?
It depends on the set list. If there are new songs involved, I practice more hours that week. If they are all familiar songs, I practice the songs for the gig less hours and spend more time on challenging material that I haven’t played public yet.
Hey Serena! Thanks for you comments and great suggestion. One technique I use is to stretch my abilities while rehearsing with something that is more difficult to do than the material for the gig itself. For example, with singing, if I have a song that has a few high notes that are a little tough to hit, I’ll rehearse that song a half-step higher than they key I’m going to play it in at the gig. Then, when it comes time to do it for real (a half-step lower than rehearsed), it’s a lot easier to do. The same goes for instrumental stuff: play something that’s more difficult than what you’re actually going to perform: at a faster tempo, etc. As for how long to rehearse, believe it or not, only 15 minutes a day can make a HUGE difference in keeping your chops up. Like you, I’ll practice more when there’s a gig coming up. And one thing I learned the hard way: practice EVERY song that’s going to be in the set list, even if you’ve played it a thousand times. It’s the ones that we do on “autopilot” without rehearsing them first (because we don’t think we need to) that can turn into train wrecks at the gig! 😀
Great piece. Thanks. First time I heard the term was the story of how CP did an open jam at a club in Kansas City and was so bad that the drummer unscrewed one of the cymbals and threw it on the floor — a pretty savage way of telling someone they’re done. Parker went away and spent a year “woodshedding.” And re-emerged as THE Charlie Parker (if still young). So, I’ve always thought of it as a jazz term. I suppose we could say Robert Johnson has a famous woodshedding story, but he came up with a better story about meeting the devil at the crossroads. The 10,000 thing has become fetishized a bit. My answer to the “how much to I need to practice” question is always, “More.”
Amen to that, Gary! “More” is always better when it comes to practice. Thanks for sharing the anecdotes, and keep woodshedding! 🙂