You Missed a Spot!

Every day for 5 hours at WXXI, I play CDs.  On an average weekday, I play 22 pieces of recorded music.  A rough estimate suggests that 97% of the recordings I play are produced in a studio, with the remaining 3% are recorded live in concert.  We don't usually think about the process of creating these recordings, but after having just spent a weekend in the recording studio with my brass quintet, I can tell you that studio recording is one of the most humbling experiences a musician can ever have.

I think musicians are often regarded with a sense of disconnect with the average listener.  We put on a CD and we hear music come out of the speakers without much thought about how much coffee that violinist had the morning of the recording, or if the tuba player had a three-hour Johnny Cash tribute gig the night before (true story).  And what we've come to expect from a recording is perfection: no note out of place, no rhythm askew, no chord un-tuned.  Those coffee jitters or Johnny-Cash-fueled fogginess shouldn't get in the way of The Music (capitals intended).  But for the Recording Artist, getting The Music crystal clean requires a degree of pain and suffering never evident on the other end of recording consumption.  

As a point of comparison, let's say you're a house painter.  You've just finished painting the outside of a house.  In the real world, the owners of the house and their guests remark on how nice it looks and it just freshens everything up and they pay no attention to the little brush stroke you left just under the easement above the second-floor bathroom window, or the spot of Cape Cod Ivory trim color that landed on the Country Cottage Cerulean siding color just above the driveway door entryway's lamp that got there when you bumped the trim color cup as you reached for your coffee because you had a long night out with friends celebrating Johnny Cash's 78th birthday the evening before which ended up going way longer than you expected because the band was so great and you could have sworn you saw the lead singer/bass player playing tuba in some other group you heard at a wedding once.

For a normal house painter, these things don't matter.  They get overlooked.  But if that house painter's work had to be scrutinized in a similar manner as a classical musician making a recording in a studio, every centimeter of the entire house would be on display in high-definition on a 60-inch screen for thousands of people to scrutinize (including, especially, other house painters).  That errant brush stroke suddenly ruins the entire South side of the house.  The drip of Cape Cod Ivory trim color now makes the beauty of the expertly laid Country Cottage Cerulean completely and hopelessly irrelevant because its previously uninterrupted expanse of uniform color (even hiding behind the driveway door entryway's lamp) has been interrupted for 0.7 centimeters by a foreign color.

This is how the five of us felt in the studio listening back to our just-finished tracks of brass quintet music.  Everything--every tiny, minute, painful, coffee-jitter-induced error was blown up to mammoth proportions on the top-of-the-line speakers from which our sounds emanated.  But alas, we musicians are not house painters, and thus accept this microscopic investigation of every note as a fact of life.  So, humbling though it may be, what doesn't kill our egos only makes us stronger.  And in the end, some got left on the final product.

When you flip on the radio or put in a CD--or even attend a live performance--remember the hours of painstaking specificity that goes into every musical performance.  And if we biff something, cut a little slack.  We may have had to buy the bass player a beer or two the night before.

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