Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Nashville Trip Log # 1: Tom Jackson's Bootcamp

For the last two days of my trip to Nashville,  I attended Tom Jackson's Live Performance Bootcamp for Singers and Bands.  It was a very valuable experience and I highly recommend it for all performing musicians. 

Tom Jackson is a guy who lives for great performance moments, and he wants to help musicians identify and accentuate them in their shows.  He calls himself a Live Music Producer, and he and his crew (including three other Jackson-trained associates) claim to be the only people doing what they do:  working with bands and artists to hone their performance into a truly memorable experience for an audience.

Even if they're not the only ones doing it, it's easy for me to believe that they are the best at it.  Although I had seen many of his DVDs, I had a blast seeing Tom Jackson work in person for two days.  He observes and listens with a keen eye and an open heart, and then leaps into action.  He interrupts, extracts, rearranges.  He suggests and watches.  He brings dynamics into a song, where before there was a wall of sound--"goulash," as Jackson would call it.  The process calls the audience's attention to the performers' personalities.  We hear deliberate sparseness, then fullness.  Suddenly, the hotshot guitar lead guitar player is in the spotlight.  Then we get a glimpse at just how funky that bass player can be.  Finally, the whole band rips it up together. 

A lot of Jackson's feedback is nonverbal, a hilarious and fascinating combination of air guitaring and imitating the sounds of various instruments.  The communication is beyond words--yet musicians get it, because it reminds them about what's exciting about music, about why they play in the first place, about the things that can get lost in the effort to get the notes and pitches right.  After a few repetitions of this process with an artist or band, everyone in the room of about 70 musicians would erupt in applause in response to the exciting effectiveness of his changes.

Tom Jackson's work is ultimately about courtesy for the audience.  It's about stepping back--really stepping back, to the tune of weeks' worth of additional rehearsal--to a) become conscious about what we're trying to say with a song and b) make that absolutely obvious to the person watching and listening.  It's also about writing a giant permission slip and handing it to developing performers--inviting them to take charge, take a chance, cop an attitude, and shine like a star when they step onstage.

If you were in a play or a movie, you'd have a director to help you focus your performance this way.  If you're a writer, an editor could help.  But for musicians, particularly in this Wild West era of Indie and the Internet--where an artist has to cobble together a support and development team on his/her own--artists and audiences alike can benefit from this kind of coaching.

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