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Skills & Pleasure.

I could be talking sex here… alright… I AM thinking sex here. But I’ll talk about something else, OK?

Guitar, cooking, writing, bartending, tennis, dancing, gardening, chess, biking, languages, investing, birdwatching, chocolate tasting. So many more…

Skills and knowledge; they elevate us and make us more as humans. Our lives are stories, and those areas where we thrive and grow and excel within are those that bring pleasure… and exhilaration to our story.

I crave endorphins. I love the rush, the feeling of ambrosia, beauty inside, excitement. I don’t get it from gambling in casinos, or buying lottery tickets, or injecting heroin.

I get it by doing and learning new skills.

I’m working on one right now that I never knew or even believed existed until recently.

I love playing my songs at Open Mic nights. I was on stage performing 4 songs last night: one I wrote, and one Harry Chapin tune for David because David loves ole Harry.

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My Ole Friend Harry…

Sure, it scares me. Sure, loose bowels, yada yada… but I’m doing something I really really enjoy and it’s an intense learning experience.

I’m studying the art of reading the audience to suss out what works and what doesn’t. Stand-up comedians like Louis CK and Jerry Seinfeld do this all the time.

I used to think that playing the guitar reasonably well was my core strength – my manly muscle flex – and the singing part of my performance was something peripheral that folks just had to yawn about and tolerate to make the song complete.

At Open Mic I watch and wonder at Richard K. when he’s on stage. He’s an eccentric. He’s an unabashed performer, a Johnny Winter lookalike with a snowy white mane contrasted against classy black suit jacket and pants.

When Richard sings, he opens his mouth like a ferocious ocean storm, gaping wide and projecting from the calluses of his foot soles. Singing is Richard’s full body workout. It’s mesmerizing to watch as his voice pours out like a lion’s roar. I watch… and learn.

I’ve always regarded my own voice as mundane and choirboy-like, too buttery. I have dances in my dreams of parking some Kenny Rogers gravel or Keith Urban Down-Under twang in my throat.

But I’m finding that more and more often, I get compliments on my singing. Some of it is generous fatuous flattery.

However… lately… I’m coming around to the idea that there may be more to it.

EPIPHANY!

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Now, I’m starting to unbelievably believe that it’s the singing that’s my strength.

Have you ever read or heard about Frank Sinatra, and how he made a song uniquely special with his pacing and delivery of the lyrics? Sinatra wrote the book on musical phrasing.

It didn’t mean anything to me when I heard that.  How could it be? It’s merely words sung to a melody line, right?… simple, straightforward.

But no other popular singer has ever known better the combined value of exacting diction and conversational delivery. No one before Sinatra seemed to know where the deliberate pause would paint the greatest emotional impact.

Sinatra was perhaps an intuitive musician, but he was also, I believe, an analytical, scientific singer too. He knew that to inflect a word or a syllable can shift the rhythm and increase the genuineness of a lyric, and can also wash attention over an especially attractive melodic phrase.

Subtlety. Nuance.

OK, so I’m a convert. Now I evangelize as if I wander the streets passing out Watchtower pamphlets. Hallelujah.

I’ve heard scads of singers who have pleasant voices and can stay on key and – OMG, if you can’t sing on key, please get off the stage and go join Boney M and drag your fingers down someone else’s blackboard – yet don’t understand musical phrasing.

Roberta Flack had phrasing. Freddie Mercury had phrasing. Adele has phrasing in spades… her voice and cadence betrays her frailty and, by extension, her humanity. It’s a skill.

No doubt you can think of a dozen singers that insinuate themselves inside you with the timing and pacing of their approach to lyrics. You may not be aware of the effect, but it happens, trust me.

When I practice a song these days, I’ll play it over and over again, and then once more. Jackson Browne would do this for hours on end when he lived in the basement suite below the Eagles’ Don Henley and Glenn Frey in L.A. years ago.

Each time I play the song I’m working on, for example, the popular song Let Her Go by Passenger, I’ll try out many different interpretations, and work on timing and nuances within the lyric lines.

Eventually, I unearth a pattern that, to me, extracts the most emotional impact from the poetic words and rhythm. Skills and pleasure.

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Subtlety. Nuance.

Learning through practice and concentrated effort brings me a feeling of nirvana… satisfaction … and… intense pleasure.

You’ve felt this powerful perception in your world when you put in your best effort and surrendered to the sensation. The soaring awareness of endorphin-packed execution wraps you in a blissful tranquility.

We’re all a complex bundle of simplicity and complexity, perpetually incomplete humans in all areas: physical, spiritual, emotional. Our desires will never be fully answered, nor should they be.

But when I’m always ready to learn a new skill, or improve an old one, I’m once again in my “beginner’s mind”, and like a tiny child, I hold that shiny object over my head, and wonder at all that it holds…

Now that’s pleasure.

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