Dealing with Red Light Fever

Anyone who has recorded has experienced it: you are just fine, in the zone, ready to go, and then either the red "RECORDING" light goes on or your the engineer's voice comes over the cans, "Recording." All of a sudden your hands won't work and your mind wanders. You can't start a take or play to save your life. When I first started playing sessions each one was like walking out on stage for the first time. I got red light fever and jitters like anyone else. It was just like the first time rappelling off a 100 foot wall or taking the controls of a plane or any number of other exciting activities. Even the top guys have their days... and their days. In 1972, Joe Walsh sat down on a nail keg with his Les Paul and asked producer/engineer Bill Szymczyk for a run-through to warm up for his attempts at slide lead overdubs on "Rocky Mountain Way," which was to be his monumental 1973 "coming out" as a slide guitarist. To say he was stressed about getting the right results would be an understatement. Bill punched up playback and Joe did a rehearsal. At the end of the rehearsal, Joe pulled himself together and said, "Okay, let's record." Bill replied, "Nope, I think that last one was the take." Knowing Joe was facing a pretty steep mental challenge, Bill had recorded the rehearsal. Because Joe wasn't thinking about perfection, he was "as loose as a long-necked goose" and created that great, greasy slide part we've come to know... on his first take.

People have come up with all sorts of suggestions to help you through that moment but few have seemed to work for me except one: What ended red light fever for me was repetition and recording myself. Just doing it... over and over. Trying to accomplish the goal. Creating enough output that I learned that every recording doesn't have to be monumental. Learning that yes, humans screw up and I am human and my screw-ups are survivable. Part of that happens when you just record repeatedly. Like Bill Szymczyk with Joe Walsh, what we have to do is to find a way to take command of ourselves and put ourselves back in that, "it doesn't matter whether I nail it or fluff it" mindset we feel during a dry run. We also have to do that after the take when we are judging our performances and deciding when good enough is good enough. It also means forgiving ourselves and allowing our playing to flow, even on the fifteenth take, without counting takes or engaging in recriminations.

What I do with myself is engage in a very positive inner monologue, ie. "That was close, but let's do another." "That was nearly it, but let's polish the ending a bit." "You are almost there, let's try another." In thinking about that inner monologue I think about the first time I rappelled - you know, descended a cliff on a rope. It was off a cliff that featured a 100-foot sheer drop followed by a small shelf and then another 300-foot sheer drop. There's this moment when you go from having your weight on your feet to having your weight on the rope and it occurs right there on the edge of the cliff when you have to lean out. The first time you are scared spitless, looking at the sheer drop, and knowing your life is literally in your hands. The guy who took me out and taught me to rapel showed how it was done with a demonstration. He then climbed back up, roped me up, stood next to me on the edge of the cliff, and talked me over. He did so with a gentle voice and encouragement. I stopped at the edge, leaning out with tension on the rope but my weight on my feet for what seemed to be an eternity, scared to move. I was also afraid to fail in front of the group of people who had gatherd there at the top of the cliff to enjoy the view. My teacher quietly encouraged me: "You can do this. It is safe. It is fun once you get over the edge. We've got all the time in the world. You can do it..." And then I just did it, and found out that the transition between not doing it and doing it was the scariest part. Once you got over the edge, the doing was actually a blast! And each time you did it your confidence grew and you came to realize you could and would survive it and that moment at the edge became no big deal. Confidence was the key.

The same is true in Navy aircraft carrier landings, by the way. They are incredibly tough and dangerous to do, especially in bad weather. Once you've trained a pilot to do carrier landings he still has to have the confidence to make them happen, each and every time. And that spark of confidence turns out to be a fragile, brittle thing. Damage to the plane, shortage of fuel, a near-miss in the air, combat, even a personal problem at home, all of these things can damage the pilot's confidence enough to threaten his ability to land his multi-million dollar plane on that postage-stamp-sized deck. How do the officers in command deal with a loss of confidence? Do they go on the air and bark at him, "Rookie! You land that plane!" Nope. They encourage the pilot that he can do it, that he will do it. Why? Because it works. If he runs short of fuel they send up a tanker and give him a squirt. He, and they, can't afford to allow the specter of failure to rob him of his confidence.

So that is how I deal with myself when I am doing sessions. I encourage. Lather, rinse, repeat. And somehow I've always ended up succeeding... despite myself.