A Lesson with Liv
Troubadour and oarsman meet to explore rhythm, rest, and the trust of an audience.
The singer-songwriter Livingston Taylor was artist-in-residence in Lowell House from 2000 through September, participating in House life and meeting with music students to listen, teach, and advise them on what it is to be involved in the creative arts (his artistic affiliation continues). A younger brother of the pop/folk singer James Taylor, he has been a professional musician since 1968, releasing 16 albums and concertizing around the world. Dan Boyne, director of recreational rowing at Harvard's Weld Boat house since 1986, writes songs and plays guitar and sometimes performs at local watering holes. The two men struck a bargain: Boyne would coach Taylor in the art of sculling, and Taylor would teach Boyne about playing and writing music. "Given the relative skill levels in music and rowing," Taylor says, "I made out like a bandit." Here is Boyne's account of their first music lesson, held in the senior common room of Lowell House.
Somehow, I manage to fumble my way through the first chords of a melancholy, slow-moving song about a guy driving back to visit an old girlfriend. It's one of the compositions that I'm really fond of, and one that other people have told me sounds very Tayloresque -- both in its vocals and its chord construction. But now I am so tense and nervous that my fingers refuse to cooperate, and my voice feels weak and quavering. To add to my discomfort, I feel Livingston's eyes upon both me and my guitar, moving back and forth between them like a hawk. No one has ever scrutinized me so intensely. But somehow, by avoiding Livingston's penetrating stare, I make my way through the song.
"Sorry", I immediately apologize. I was kind of nervous.
"Okay", he says. "Yes, you were nervous, but never mind about that. Don't apologize. You have one big problem!"
I guess I'd kind of hoped for a modicum of praise before the critique was leveled, but this was not about to happen.
"What's that?" I ask.
"You have no sense of internal rhythm."
I knit my eyebrows together, not understanding.
"Here, give me your guitar," he says.
I'm all too happy to relinquish the instrument, for I can't seem to do it justice at the moment. And what follows makes me even less confident of my musical ability. Without a warm-up of any kind, Livingston plays my song, singing the exact words and finding the right chords without any help from me.
I'm fascinated. It would have been one thing if the chord progressions had been easy, but in this song they aren't.
"What am I doing?" he says suddenly, snapping me out of my reverie.
"Playing my song better than me?" I joke.
"No! Listen again. What am I doing?" He plays it a second time. But what is he doing? Well, he's singing with that honey-coated Taylor voice that both he and his brother James share. And he's also playing the guitar much better than I do. But I suddenly get the feeling that Livingston is asking me to look beyond these things, to see something deeper.
When Livingston sings, I realize, a big smile spreads across his face - not an obsequious one that says, "Please love me", but a confident one that says, "I'm having a great time playing this song, and you're going to have a great time listening to it".
And I do.
Hours later, after we'd parted ways, I couldn't remember all of the songs Livingston had played for me -- the titles or the words. What did stick in my head was the way they were played. They were all hypnotic. But how did he do it? Well, he made the music sound very relaxed, not strained. He took his time without any nervousness or anticipation.
"You're not rushing," I offer.
"Yes, but it's more than that. Listen again."
He plays another song, one of his own, and begins to stomp his feet for emphasis.
"Internal rhythm!" he says. "You lack a sense of internal rhythm. And without that, there is no place for you to rest in your song. And if you can't rest in your song, how can you expect anyone else to be able to?"
To rest in my song? How can you rest and play simultaneously? But maybe this is what's so enjoyable about listening to the Taylors -- that mellow, restful way they have of rendering a song. I had always assumed it had more to do with their voices, their guitar playing, or the chords they produced.
"Do you know what made my brother James famous?" he asks.
I shake my head. I'm not going to touch that one.
"It wasn't his voice. His voice is good, but that didn't do it. It wasn't his songwriting. His songwriting is also very good, but that didn't do it."
I shrug, still clueless.
"It was his playing -- he is an extremely skilled player. Go back and listen to his early albums, and you'll hear that sense of internal rhythm I'm talking about. It's uncanny.
"If you've got rhythm, you can do anything," he goes on. "You can miss a chord, or a line of a verse; you can scat sing and use no words at all." He demonstrates this by playing a jazzed-up version of the old standard, When I Fall in Love. By placing different vocal sounds on top of the music, he never needs to resort to actual words. Yet I am instantly transported into the heart of the song.
"The audience doesn't really care what you do -- the words, the instrumentation -- all of those things are just the ornaments of a song. But as soon as you lose the rhythm, you've lost them. It's all over".
He frowns for emphasis, and gives me back my guitar.
Livingston is explaining the mechanics of a song in a way that I've never heard before. Sure, I've heard that rhythm was the first requirement of music, but I've always taken that to mean that you could make music just by drumming with a stick. What Livingston is saying is that rhythm is the primary concern, without which there's nothing.
"You can have a beautiful voice, and some great songs," he repeats, "but if you don't have rhythm, your audience will never trust you."
He has me play another one of my songs, but I'm focusing on the finger picking and the sound of my voice before I even establish the rhythmic foundation. Livingston soon tells me to stop.
"O.K., just do this for me. Just pluck each chord once, for each transition, with no picking in between."
This request makes me uneasy: I'm proud of my finger picking, and Livingston is implying that it is actually getting in the way. Slowly, I'm beginning to realize that it doesn't really matter how well you play if the basic elements aren't in place. As I pluck each chord once, it dawns on me that my finger picking has sometimes been a way for me to try to hide my other deficiencies. This time I get a little farther before Livingston stops me.
"Nope. It's still not good. Stop playing entirely, and just sing the song."
Now my voice is exposed. I start trying to stomp my feet, as Livingston did, looking for another anchor now that he's taken away my instrument.
Livingston lets me sing a little longer than he let me play, but soon I know I've lost it, and he stops me again.
"So ... now just speak the words - in rhythm, course."
Now both my feet are going, pedaling up and down, as I try to recite my song. But in my pursuit of rhythm, I feel like my voice has no emotion. I feel naked, defeated. My beautiful song is now stripped down to nothing but words and a beat. To my disbelief, however, I make it through the entire piece. And at the end, Livingston is actually beaming.
"Now that was beautiful! You had me -- I was right there with you! And you brought all your life experience into the song. It was wonderful."
I'm dumbstruck, and nearly as embarrassed as I had been earlier when Livingston told me what I was doing wrong. I hadn't even sung a note, or plucked a string on my guitar.
"Now," Livingston says, "let's work on your voice."