This month’s blog post features a conversation I had with my friend Brett Staggs. In our talk, we discussed emotional musicianship versus academic musicianship by asking each other a series of questions. We documented our interaction in two ways: a written exchange we did via email, and an unscripted conversation we filmed with our iPhones.
Also included in this post are examples of Brett and I playing music together. (Despite our philosophical differences, Brett and I collaborate quite well.)
I’ve organized the post in the following order: (1) the video conversation, (2) the written exchange, (3) musical examples, and (4) a transcript.
The sentiments that Brett and I express in this post are probably common among musicians and among artists in general. It is our hope that you will connect with us here and that you will perhaps understand something more about yourself.
The Video Conversation
The Written Exchange
Jump: Musicians have (from a Matrix point of view) taken the red pill. Would you take the blue pill, lose everything you have musically, and go back to the raw connectivity of your non-musician days? After ingesting the blue pill you will experience a two year lapse in your aptitude for playing music, you’ll get to experience the raw emotional connectivity of listening to music again, and then you’ll get to return to full musicianship. However, and here’s the novel part, you will be a different, albeit equal, musician. If you were a concertmaster, you may return as a concert pianist, if you were a singer songwriter you may return as a lead guitarist. Would you take the blue pill?
Staggs: I experience music in an academic way to the extent that I recognize structure and lyrical themes as a foundation for either performing or listening. Really only the structure part is academic because recognizing lyrical content is basically to be in tune with the emotion of the song and be able to act accordingly. I say “act” because performing music for me is both about playing instruments or singing but also about projecting a feeling to the listener via body language and intensity of poise, all the while forcing the will of the song upon my being and soaking in it so I can wring sentiment upon the listener.
Basically I am almost all emotion and very little academia. Even when I listen to my own music I mentally pretend to be someone else for the sole purpose of hearing it for the first time and feeling what is there to feel.
I would take the blue pill actually because I would love to be an equally as good lead guitarist or pianist as I potentially am a songwriter or drummer.
What strikes me is I am all emotion but long for the academic and you are all academic but seem to long for the emotional. I feel just as stuck as you; I don’t foresee any advancement in my academic side, other than that gleaned from lots of practice, which is more skill than enhanced knowledge.
When you are listening/writing/performing/recording music, is it an emotional experience or an academic experience for you, or both?
Jump: At this point in the game, I’m sorry to say, music is an almost purely academic experience for me.
I still enjoy an emotional connection to music but it’s nebulous and rooted in my past. I like to listen to the familiar. I still get an aesthetic experience from my standbys such as The Beatles, The Grateful Dead, Metallica, and The Band. It’s almost like, at this stage of the game, I feel that I’ve been through my listening phase and now I’ve moved on to my active participation phase. I am consistently, day to day, without any reprieve, playing, teaching, writing, and recording music.
My emotional connection to music is much overshadowed by my connection to listening analytically. I am usually thinking things like this: that’s a great rhythm, that solo was all over the place, she sings beautifully in tune, or other such thoughts. I am powerless, I’m afraid, to think otherwise.
Brett and I have played a metric shit ton of music together. I’ve recorded his band (Long Time Darlings), I’ve been in a band with him (The Williams Band), and I’ve played in a duo with him.
In addition to our musical collaborations we’ve also done comedy sketches and various other media oddities.
It’s safe to say that we have a healthy collaborative relationship.
Jump: So, we’re basically asking each other the question: what does it mean to be a musician, emotionally? What does it mean to be a musician academically?
Staggs: Yeah, and I think we, the two of us, are great examples because we’re so far on either side of the spectrum. I’m way over on the emotional side, because of my lack of academic training and understanding, and you’re well over on the academic side, because of your lifetime pursuit of, you know, being kick-ass.
Jump: …you can’t play drums, you have no idea how to arrange or anything of that sort–would you do that to experience music from an emotional standpoint again? I don’t think that I would, I don’t know if I would take that risk: I think I’ve put too much into what I have.
Staggs: To your point of just being, like, a listener and not a musician. I think fandom adds to that–for me anyway. Like, when I get really into a band I turn into just a fan.
Staggs: I’m listening as a fan I’m buying their t-shirt, you know, I’m going to their concert if they come to town–blah, blah, blah. And in those moments I feel like I’m just a fan and I’m not a musician at all.
Jump: One way that you can grow outside of learning music in a traditional sense is by imitation. So, when I listen to myself playing from recordings from my mid twenties I can hear myself trying to play like Jerry Garcia. Like, I’m affecting a Jerry Garcia approach to my picking especially. And it was a way for me to grow outside of the explicit–learning solos note for note or like reading a chart of a guitar solo–so, just, imitation is an interesting way to grow academically, and that’s still a bit emotional.
Jump: Because you’re connecting with them like a baby bird learns mama bird’s song–just imitating.
Jump: The baby bird isn’t reading a treatise on bird songs.
Jump: Baby Bird’s just, you know, trying to do the same thing.
Staggs: You, you’re, like, walking through the woods and you peak into a bird’s nest and they’re, like, reading books…(laughter) …How To Fly.
Staggs: “Who printed these tiny books?”
Jump: So weird! It’s got little beak-enabled page turners.
Staggs: I remember when we were at Gooski’s a few weeks ago and Iron Maiden came on the jukebox and you stopped mid sentence and you were like…your eyes lit up. And you were like, “Aw, dude Iron Maiden, I love this song!” You literally jumped at it.
Jump: All right, let’s talk about that. Iron Maiden was a connection point that I formulated as a teenager when I was still very much in the emotional connectivity of music.
Staggs: It takes you back there.
Jump: That’s right–so, like, that’s why my connection points are old bands I listened to as a kid.
Jump: And Iron Maiden and Metallica and a lot of those metal bands are one of them. When I hear them, especially having not heard them in a long time–you know, I don’t sit here at home listening to Maiden by myself all day long.
Staggs: Aw, dammit. I was really hoping that you did.
Jump: You know, I’m like, aw man…
Jump: Yeah, right! Murders in the Rue Morgue–I love this song, I love Steve Harris.
Staggs: You haven’t lost the emotion…the emotional side of being a musician. You’ve just progressed so much further since your teen Maiden days. As a player that you…your attention has shifted to becoming better at being a musician and being a music teacher.
Staggs: And you haven’t stayed put in that emotional space. You’ve moved on. and so, when you look back, you can say, “Wow I was really emotional about music when I was younger but I’ve, sort of, lost that.” But you haven’t lost the experience. You’ll never lose the experience you had when you were younger as an emotional listener.
Staggs: So, what would you say are the options for someone like my self who needs a vast amount of academic advancement in order to become what we were talking about–the plummer. And then the academic who perhaps really wants to reconnect emotionally. What are some things those two individuals can do?
Jump: Well I can answer the academic to emotional question because that’s something that I have to deal with. So, I do it by distancing myself from music. So, this is both good and bad. Because I think that listening is part of what enriches musicianship. But I’ve spent so much time listening. And, I interact with music so often without reprieve, day-to-day–writing, recording, teaching, playing music. That, how I reconnect, is I get away from it by interacting with other art-forms. Listening to audio books rather than listening to music. Or, I’ll just drive in my car in silence instead of listening to the radio or to a CD. And then, whenever music sneaks up on me and surprises me like that Iron Maiden song did, then I do get to experience emotional connectivity. So, the answer is, a little bit of distance–just like a relationship–sometimes a little bit of space is good. So, as far as academic to…getting an academic perspective from being a student–you know, the answer to that question isn’t fun. It’s just the nuts and bolts–it’s the day-to-day, it’s discipline. Learning how to read especially, even though that’s hard. And it seems to cheapen music for many. There seems to be a divide between the literate and the non-literate musician with each side a little skeptical of the other. I’ve heard non-literate musicians just kind of fold their arms and say, “what you guys are up to is total bullshit.” And then, of course, you get the condescension from the literate musician of like…
Staggs: “…you don’t know what you’re doing.”
Jump: Yeah, “you have no idea what you’re doing, buddy, nice job playing those three chords.”
Jump: So, being at peace with, “just because I’m learning how to read doesn’t necessarily mean that now I’m some sort of pretend-emotional musician. It’s doesn’t have to erode your connectivity. So, learn to read. Because then you can learn other people’s music note-for-note. And then, by learning other people’s music note-for-note, you enrich your skill set. Now you have this whole cache of vocabulary in which to derive your next musical experiment from.
About Brett Staggs
Brett Staggs began his musical journey on a horse farm in Williamsport, Pa. The first cassette tape in his possession was that of Social Distortion’s “Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell”, the seed of rock was planted. After moving to Pittsburgh, he began playing and writing both as a frontman for The Long Time Darlings and as a drummer for Eric James, The Williams Band, and PATTON. He also worked behind the kit in Austin,TX for a season with Slowtrain, Graham Weber, Ricky Stein, and Nashville songwriter Tommy Womack, performing at SXSW 2006-2008. Brett Staggs & The Long Time Darlings had songs used in several local Austin and Pittsburgh films and were featured on local Pittsburgh stations WDVE, WYEP, and WPTS. The Long Time Darlings hit the magazine stands when their song “Babydoll” was featured in the December 2012 issue of Classic Rock Magazine’s cover-mounted CD Compilation “We’re An American Band.”
I would never go back. Screw the blue pill!
I was stuck for a period where I became upset that I was only listening to the music I grew up with. So I began taking trips to the library and literally grabbing any cd that caught my attention. I did this for the better part of two years.