I do enjoy British telly. In North America I had little time or inclination for TV watching but there’s something about being in England that has me interested in almost anything that comes on the box.
Although, having said that, much British programming actually does come from North America, and I can’t explain this, but even American shows seem more watchable when viewed from a British couch with a cup of tea.
A perfect example of this happened a few nights ago when I found myself immersed in a documentary called This Is It about Michael Jackson’s rehearsals for what was to be his final series of concerts in 2009 at the O2 arena in London. I have never been too interested in Michael Jackson. Like a lot of pop artists that you grow up with (but don’t pay much attention to) he was always there in the background. But seeing him at work gave me a fascinating new perspective on the man.
There is something about watching the process of a skilled worker that I always enjoy. It can be any job. I find it all thoroughly interesting to learn what goes into creating a fine finished product. And since Michael Jackson is in a similar line of work to me it was especially fascinating to see how he prepares for his big show.
Within a minute or two I stopped fixating on his grotesque facial choices (and surprisingly large hands) and instead became absorbed in his combination of extraordinary talent in harness with decades of acquired journeyman’s skill.
You soon realize that this guy is amazing. The dedicated precision of every movement and note that he produces is made more incredible because of the seemingly relaxed ease of their execution. It’s obvious to see that here is someone who did not get famous through good luck and fortunate connections. He is beyond being just good. The word supernatural would be closer to the mark.
I could go on to rhapsodize about various facets of his work but this is a newsletter for ukulele players so I’ll pick just one moment that got me thinking about the importance of capturing the feel of a song.
I’m talking about rhythmic feel. And feel has nothing to do with feeling i.e. the emotional qualities of a song. Feel is a little understood and underused aspect of ukulele playing. How often have you been at a ukulele jam where every song has been played with exactly the same bouncy rhythm? Some people call this phenomenon Chang-a-lang.
At the opposite end of the chang-a-lang spectrum you have Michael Jackson, who I doubt has ever done chang-a-lang in his life. I watched him communicating the feel of one of his songs to musical director and keyboardist Michael Bearden. It was a lesson in a) the importance of finding the right feel for a song and b) the degree of care that can go into getting that feel exactly right.
The scene showed Michael Bearden playing the offbeat intro to the song The Way You Make Me Feel and being repeatedly interrupted by MJ saying,”No that’s not right, do it like this.” And MJ would put across the exact feel he was aiming for by using body language and hand gestures while at the same time singing the offbeats, “Bah, Bah, Bah”.
Because feel is exactly that. It’s something that you feel – and although it can be roughly expressed on paper it can’t be fully communicated except by the human who knows what the feel should be.
Michael Bearden is no slouch. I don’t know exactly what his credentials are, but heck, he’s Michael Jackson’s musical director so he has to be pretty good, right? And yet MJ was still not hearing the particular flavor of offbeat that he wanted. Bearden’s playing sounded fine to me. In fact it sounded good. But good wasn’t good enough in this case, it had to be Michael Jackson good.
MJ said, “Do it like you’re dragging yourself out of bed.” Soon enough they got there and we then cut to footage of the finished performance with dancers dressed like tired construction workers on a building site. And that’s when you realized that the effort in establishing exactly the right feel, in this case bone weary tiredness, was all worthwhile. Because it is out of that state that the song transforms to become an energized dance number.
It takes a time and care to get the feel right. So next time you’re about to play a song or lead a ukulele jam try pausing before starting each piece.
Feel the feel in your body. Silently move your strumming arm in the way that the song wants to be played. Only then are you ready to begin. It takes but a few seconds and it makes a world of difference. That’s why you see so many professionals begin a song in this way.
If you’re not careful to establish the new feel for the next song then you’re likely to continue playing that song with the identical feel to the previous number and you don’t want that. It wouldn’t be good. In fact it would be bad, or even dangerous. It certainly wouldn’t be a thriller!