Making the Hard Stuff Look Easy, and the Easy Stuff Hard

I saw singer/songwriter guitarist Michael Kelsey play at the Egyptian Theatre in Park City a few weeks ago, and the experience is still resonating with me. We went on a last-minute whim, invited by friends who had extra tickets. Front row tickets, as it turned out! -- Thanks M & K!

If you're not familiar with Michael Kelsey's music -- or should I say, The Michael Kelsey Experience? -- he's a force majeure. With incredibly skillful guitar-playing, percussive popping/slapping/tapping on the guitar, mic, or anything else that might make a cool sound, and strong songwriting and singing, he's a one-man-band of the most expressive kind.

I kept having 'deep thoughts' throughout the performance (so much so, that I had to root around in my purse for a piece of paper to write them down. Which I did. The piece of paper I wrote all over turned out to be a prescription I needed to fill. Crap.)   Kelsey’s playing reminded me of something Janis Ian said in a master class I attended at the Folks Fest Song School in Lyons, CO, years ago. She said, "to captivate your audience, you need to make the hard stuff look easy, and the easy stuff look hard."

I think of this quote a lot when I see performers that are particularly engaging. Where are they straddling the line between ease and showmanship? Which parts are the ones they could do in their sleep? What did they need to practice over and over to appear so flowing and graceful?

Then the wondering:  where is that line for me?  Where am I flash or substance?  Where is it work and where is it instinct?

My thoughts reached back to an article I wrote about compelling stage performances . . . my conclusion was that we become fascinated with a performer when they do something out of our perceived realm of possibility – when they easily do something we don’t secretly believe we could do ourselves with the right amount of time or effort. I am quite sure that Michael Kelsey’s guitar-playing talent is something beyond my “perceived realm of possibility.” (At least for the moment. ☺)

Another revelation from the back-of-the-prescription notes: “Some performers make you want to practice harder. Others make you want to throw away your instrument, because, really. . . what’s the point!?”  Craig saw Prince in concert a few years ago and said it almost made him want to quit playing;  Prince was so insanely talented -- at his non-primary instruments, too, like bass and drums -- that it was almost disheartening, even to someone I see as a magically gifted player like Craig.

After a while, my ego started fighting with my enjoyment, asking me to rank my own skills in relation to Michael’s. “All this percussive action, it’s just a gimmick,” my ego suggested. “The electronic looping and layering, unnecessary and too much going on.”  I gave these two thoughts a wide berth, letting them run their course, and decided that, “Umm, Yeah, NO.”  He’s got skills that I don’t have, gifts I don’t know if I’m even interested in developing.  So, sorry Ego.  You lose this round. There is room up there for everybody, in a wildly fluctuating continuum of talent and skill and innovation and inspiration that moves among all of us who create and experience art.  I’ve had some amazing moments; I hopefully will have more.  Michael can have his too.

In the meantime, I’ll work on making the hard stuff look easy. (Making the easy stuff look hard isn’t too challenging at the moment!)


Five Things I’m Thankful For Today:
1. That Daisy is going back to school on Monday for more Montessori fun 
2. For good workouts that leave me energized and full of endorphins!
3. For nice walks and neighborly drinks
4. For our full bounty from the farmer’s market yesterday
5. For the great visit home over the last few weeks



8 comments

  • mattbg

    mattbg

    This Michael Kelsey fellow sounds like he's using the same tactic as people like Yoav and, before him, Howie Day -- I've seen each of them as opening acts for Tori Amos before and it was pretty interesting to see what they could create with themselves and some looping/effects equipment. I can relate to the comments about Prince. And I think it's perfectly valid to wonder what you are really contributing if you're not doing better than the best in your field. It's probably not so important with live music, since there's a limited supply and a large demand for live music and one person can't be in two or more places at once. But when you get into recorded music that can be easily replicated, distributed, and played in multiple places simultaneously then I do wonder what's going through some recording artists' heads when they put out a run-of-the-mill piece of work that sounds like they're just putting in a day at the office. I play piano (very, very amateurishly) but I do wonder what I'm up to when I'll never approach even the most basic level of professional competence. I guess its main function is to make me appreciate the talent of those that do it professionally so much more :)

    This Michael Kelsey fellow sounds like he's using the same tactic as people like Yoav and, before him, Howie Day -- I've seen each of them as opening acts for Tori Amos before and it was pretty interesting to see what they could create with themselves and some looping/effects equipment.

    I can relate to the comments about Prince. And I think it's perfectly valid to wonder what you are really contributing if you're not doing better than the best in your field.

    It's probably not so important with live music, since there's a limited supply and a large demand for live music and one person can't be in two or more places at once.

    But when you get into recorded music that can be easily replicated, distributed, and played in multiple places simultaneously then I do wonder what's going through some recording artists' heads when they put out a run-of-the-mill piece of work that sounds like they're just putting in a day at the office.

    I play piano (very, very amateurishly) but I do wonder what I'm up to when I'll never approach even the most basic level of professional competence. I guess its main function is to make me appreciate the talent of those that do it professionally so much more smile

  • colleen

    colleen

    Just found your Blog...Snowed in has been a staple in our house since it came out! How then have I just found your amazing blog and seen that you have performed live LIVE so close to my home and I have never seen you in concert! ARGH! Berating myself something fierce right now! Love your voice... LOVE SNOWED IN!

    Just found your Blog...Snowed in has been a staple in our house since it came out! How then have I just found your amazing blog and seen that you have performed live LIVE so close to my home and I have never seen you in concert! ARGH! Berating myself something fierce right now! Love your voice... LOVE SNOWED IN!

  • Sheila

    Sheila

    Mary Beth, I wanted to let you know what an impact your music has made on my life. In spring of 2000 my sister lived in Midway and I had asked to stay with her. I had just escaped to Utah out of an abusive relationship. I was in emotional recovery when my sister and I went to our first Music in the Park featuring...You. So much talent and such beautiful music! We talked after your performance and you mentioned that our enthusiasm picked you up. That meant a lot to us. We purchased A More Perfect World and Supernatural. I used your music to 'reset' my emotions and with in 4 months I had regained 5 years off of my face and felt at peace. It was not a councilor, but your music that helped me complete the cycle of despair. For that I thank you. Your music is the most memorable connection my sister and I have from that time in my life. Thank you! Sheila and my sister Denene

    Mary Beth,

    I wanted to let you know what an impact your music has made on my life. In spring of 2000 my sister lived in Midway and I had asked to stay with her. I had just escaped to Utah out of an abusive relationship. I was in emotional recovery when my sister and I went to our first Music in the Park featuring...You.

    So much talent and such beautiful music! We talked after your performance and you mentioned that our enthusiasm picked you up. That meant a lot to us.

    We purchased A More Perfect World and Supernatural. I used your music to 'reset' my emotions and with in 4 months I had regained 5 years off of my face and felt at peace.

    It was not a councilor, but your music that helped me complete the cycle of despair. For that I thank you.

    Your music is the most memorable connection my sister and I have from that time in my life.

    Thank you!

    Sheila and my sister Denene

  • mb

    mb

    hi there, Matt, Colleen, and Sheila, Thank you so much for your remarks and stories. I am touched by you kind words! I have such moments of uncertainty myself at times...messages like these really help me keep my own light focused on the good things. Thank you! Sheila, I am so moved by your story. I will confess that that the "A More Perfect World" album (in particular) was written during a time of real searching and darkness in my own life. Being honest in writing helped me work through painful things, and it is the greatest compliment to hear that the work borne of that time might help others heal in such direct ways. I'm so very glad that you're in a better place now, and that the music had a part in your journey. My best wishes to you all, Mary Beth

    hi there, Matt, Colleen, and Sheila,

    Thank you so much for your remarks and stories. I am touched by you kind words! I have such moments of uncertainty myself at times...messages like these really help me keep my own light focused on the good things. Thank you!

    Sheila, I am so moved by your story. I will confess that that the "A More Perfect World" album (in particular) was written during a time of real searching and darkness in my own life. Being honest in writing helped me work through painful things, and it is the greatest compliment to hear that the work borne of that time might help others heal in such direct ways. I'm so very glad that you're in a better place now, and that the music had a part in your journey.

    My best wishes to you all,
    Mary Beth

  • bob

    bob

    waz up

    waz up

  • Rory Trickett

    Rory Trickett

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  • Freddy

    Freddy

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