Hold Your Dream Close: What I Learned in the Recording Studio

On a sunny and warm September morning, I walked into a recording studio for the first time.  The building exterior was non-descript, but inside there was shelf upon shelf of musical instruments, lots of recording equipment, and a grand piano. I was there to play piano for Macy Robison‘s cabaret-style recital Children Will Listen, in advance of her Time Out for Women (TOFW) performances in 2011, and I was “pinch-myself” thrilled.

I had accompanied Macy for several of her live performances, but I'm not a professional musician.  In order to get the best recording possible, I expected the TOFW producers to hire a professional musician, one who could easily “out-scale and arpeggio” me.  But neither they nor Macy opted for a professional, they wanted me.

Upon entering the studio, I was eager, but relaxed.  The calm was short-lived.  Within minutes of  meeting producer Tyler Castleton, who also composed In the Meantime (one of the songs we were about to record) and audio engineer Mike Greene, the taskmaster in my head (maybe you've met her/him) started in on me:  “Tyler and Mike are professionals.  I'm not.  They are going to think I'm lousy.  I am lousy.  I'm going to let Macy down.  This is supposed to be about her and her dream and it's becoming about me.  How selfish.  Why did I think I could do this?” Sound board Mike Greene StudioInside the recording studio, where the photo shop for your ears happens

The first song we record is Tyler's In the Meantime.  It's a new arrangement.  I've been on the road.  I haven't practiced.  It's not in my fingers.  I play badly.  We try Grateful.  Also a new arrangement.  I continue to play poorly.

After several lousy takes, I put everything on pause.  I'll practice these tonight.  Let's move on to something we've polished.  A first take of Just a Housewife. A second take, and then another.  Ah… better.  I'm not accustomed to multiple takes.  In a performance, you get one shot and then move on.  In a studio, the first performance is a warm-up, and you keep warming up, until you've recorded the song 5-6 times.  Once you get the hardest parts recorded, you breathe easier, because you know that a great audio engineer can string together the best of the takes.

Next we record Children Will Listen, When I Grow Up, the easiest piece by far, which I also play poorly.  The taskmaster in my mind has backed off a bit, but feels compelled to remind me she's there.  On to two of my favorites, Simple Little Things and I Won't Mind. The playbacks sound pretty good.  Macy quips — “If I can listen to myself over and over again, and not hate it, then it's probably ok.”  By the way, her singing isn't just ok.  She sounds fabulous, especially given that she's six months pregnant.  Macy's telling a story not only with her words, but with the richness and texture of her voice.  She's also unflappable.  If she's nervous, she's got an impressive poker face.

Macy robison recording children will listenMacy Robison at the microphone, about to deliver up some magic

Things continue to improve after lunch.  Around 4pm, day one is complete.  We've run through every song at least once.   There are some good takes.  I'm no longer mortified.  In fact, I think we're both confident the album will be good, a lovely post-Time Out for Women memento.

There's only one little problem.

As I wrote in The Stories We Tell Ourselves, I loved the piano as a child, but by the time I was a teenager, music had become a drudgery.   Since moving to Boston, as I accompanied/collaborated with Vanessa Quigley, and then Macy, my love of music had re-emerged.  I began to remember that I loved piano; to cherish my talent.  But that afternoon, as I walked out of the studio, I could feel the happiness slipping away, sadness seeping in.

Whitney piano recording 2010
Me at the piano, slogging

But I'd lost this dream once. I couldn't let it happen again. I had twelve hours to get the dream back — to get myself in a place where I could walk out of the studio on day two, brimming with, not bereft of happiness.

I got to work. I practiced In the Meantime and Grateful in the hotel lobby.  A little embarrassing.  But when you're fighting for something, you do what you must.  And then I really got to work. I reviewed what I'd written in my journal, and reinforced what I'd written by reaching out to a few trusted friends for pep talks.

Here's what I needed to remember:

Whenever piano becomes about performing — of proving something — of being perfect, I rarely play well.  Like Sisyphus, I can never roll the stone up the hill of my expectations.  Even if I could play perfectly, the lesson I've learned from Lady Galadriel is that when we seek adulation, we despair.   Perhaps too that's what the biblical passage about charity was trying to convey: when what we do is about connecting with, rather than impressing, others, we will succeed, regardless of how many “mistakes” we make, because charity never faileth.

As Day 2 dawned, I had neutralized the taskmaster by planning on mistakes, lots of them.  More importantly, my focus shifted from me to Macy, to providing a foundation upon which she could build in order to communicate, in a way that words cannot, how important mothering is.

And everything changed; the joy was back.

Macy robison whitney johnson 2010Macy Robison and Whitney Johnson, End of Day Two — Happy

Sometimes dreams begin to slip away.  If and when they do, fight for them.  My friend Cara Quinn, a gifted pianist, who has at times practiced 10 hours a day, is now a mother of five children under the age of 10.  She holds her dream close by practicing every evening from 9-11 after her children go to bed. Amidst the handling the logistics of being a published author and the mechanics of mothering, author Julie Berry holds tight her love of writing by occasionally reminding herself why she writes.

Do you have a taskmaster with whom you contend?   Do you record in your journal what you've said or done in the past so you can refer to it?  Who are your go-to people when you get sidelined and need help getting back in your game?

Are you holding your dream close?  Fighting for it, if need be?

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