By Leslie Budewitz
As Christine Schimpff-Carbo mentioned earlier this week, our community recently hosted the 4th Annual Crown of the Continent Guitar Festival and Workshop. “The Crown” features all styles of guitar—acoustic fingerstyle, classical, jazz, rock, and blues, with classes for beginners and singer-songwriters. Instructors are themselves working musicians. A guest artist in each category provides additional instruction, and performs a public concert. Students also give two concerts. In seven days, we attended nine concerts—and loved every one.
Mr. Right studied with Bret Boyer, a singer-songwriter from Austin who is a talented—and demanding—teacher. Students—12 in this year’s class—worked with Boyer for three hours every morning. After lunch, they could choose to attend a Master Class taught by one of the guest artists—Lee Ritenour, Pat Metheny, Robben Ford, Livingston Taylor, Mac McInally, or Scott Tennant and the LA Guitar Quartet. Guest artists and other visitors, like luthiers Aaron Greene and Linda Manzur, gave late afternoon presentations.
I snuck into the Master Class held by singer-songwriters Livingston (he calls himself Liv) Taylor and Mac McInally. McInally is a member of Jimmy Buffett’s Coral Reefers Band, and he, Taylor, and Buffett know each other well. Both classes were informal—and completely wonderful. The musicians took questions, talked about their art, and played a bit.
Liv Taylor told us this story. As a professor at Berklee School of Music in Boston, he was on the bill for the Boston Strong concert, a fundraiser for victims of the Boston Marathon bombing. His brother James was on the ticket, too, as was Jimmy Buffett. Before going on, Liv was backstage, along with dozens of other musicians, crew, sponsors, organizers, and other folks. He spotted Buffett arrive, and watched him disappear. Oh, Buffett was still there, physically. But he “cloaked himself in anonymity,” dropping all aura of celebrity, not ignoring anyone who spoke to him, but not seeking out conversation. He was, as Liv said, simply a shortish, plumpish, baldish, older guy standing in the middle of the crowd, invisible.
And that, Liv said, allowed Buffett to observe and absorb the emotions of the people, who moved around him as if he wasn’t there. He was not backstage talking about himself; he was watching and listening to other folks. And as a result, Liv thought—and McInally agreed—Buffett was able to be fully present when he performed in a way that others, including James Taylor, were not. (Liv says James can do that very well, but was not fully on it that day. Have I mentioned that Liv is highly opinionated?) Buffett was able to communicate with the audience because he had come to understand what they were feeling.
And the lesson, says Professor Taylor, is this: “You must protect your ability to observe.”
The next day, I read a newspaper story about the Pattee Canyon Ladies Salon, a group of 9 Missoula artists who meet twice a month to draw the nude figure, and once a year, exhibit together. Drawing the nude, sculptor Beth Lo said, creates empathy with the subject, for both artist and viewer. The figure is a good subject, painter and fabric artist Nancy Erickson said, because “You can make it new each time you draw the figure. So it’s a good subject for all of us to look at. You learn to draw that way.”
In other words, the practice teaches an artist how to observe.
What Liv Taylor, Beth Lo, and Nancy Erickson are saying is that observation is the key, for artists in every medium. The work—the novel, the painting, the pot, the song—tells the truth only when it is built on our observations of human nature. Only in that way can it truly connect.
“Listen to what the man says.” to quote another great songwriter. If you want to create, “protect your ability to observe.”