This past week I had a rather unique experience. One of my childhood friends works as a sound engineer at main studios for NPR in downtown D.C. and he invited me to a mini-concert with bassist/composer Marcus Miller. It was something going out over the airwaves and NPR wanted to stack the house with people they knew would applaud at the right moments and laugh at the right jokes.
I worked on radio talk shows when I was in undergrad, both for the college station and the local NPR affiliate. But the setups I worked with was nothing like NPR has. The main recording room is a rather large area, about the size of a small classroom, and a second room just to the side for the drums. A third room acted as control central for the engineers, large mixing board and computer audio equipment used to mix everything on the fly as it went out over the air.
It ended being a live broadcast for the NPR show Talk of the Nation. The host Neal Conan sat at a small desk in front of the audience, a laptop open so he could read files and ask Miller questions between musical numbers. The also had a phone line setup so fans from around the country could call in and ask questions, and a man in a suit kept running back and forth bringing listener emails for Conan to read.
Seeing Miller play was amazing. He did things on his bass I barely understood and he did them so effortlessly. It was probably as easy for him as walking across the room is for the average able-bodied person. In between bits when they took a break for local station id's, MIller lightheartedly jammed to the 1980's smooth jazz NPR pumped out. This is a guy who loves, lives and breathes music. Miller was also a great interview; his responses to questions were thoughtful and often funny. Inevitably, one caller asked how to improve his speed and technique in his own bass playing. The question led to another from Conan, who asked about his three stages of being a musician. These are, btw, paraphrased and should not be taken as verbatim quotes from Miller.
Level One: This is the learning stage, where the musician is learning the foundations of technique and theory. Fingering, scales, how to play with other musicians.
Level Two: In the stage, the musician has mastered many, if not all, of the techniques of his/her instrument. The musician can churn out complicated solos and impress everyone with how well they play their instrument, but the overall reaction will be "I bet he practices a lot".
Level Three: This final stage, the musician internalizes everything learned and uses it intuitively to express a feeling or tell a story. While they can play complicated solos, they may also choose to play things simply when it's called for. Instead of thinking about the . Miller used Miles Davis as a prime example, saying a Miles solo will make people step back and say, "Yeah, I had a girlfriend like that once." You don't think about the notes but what's behind them.
It certainly works for writers, too. Who gets to that third stage, though, can be a bit subjective. While I might be powerfully moved by Pynchon, other readers might fight him inaccessible. I still think it's a cool model, though.
If you're interested, you can hear the whole show onlinehere. Just remember when the applause come, one of those pairs of hands was mine.