For The Pro: "Vibe" is for Wussies

By Todd Smith

There' a man in Louisville's West End who can make a Hammond organ sound like an entire church revival, complete with choir and band. He doesn't wear cool clothes, he doesn't have cool gear, and he doesn't care about record deals. He doesn't care where or when he plays; all he cares about is that he plays. The Reverend John Watkins is the embodiment of Zen and the art of playing the Hammond organ. He plays, therefore he is.

Rev. Watkins cann't afford an instrument of his own; he goes to the church in the afternoons to practice. He does have one of those twenty-nine-ninty five Casios you get at Walmart, the kind without full-size keys. Does he care? He just props that thing up on his lap, punches up the "Organ" sound, and off he goes. You could swear the saints were coming home.

Until I met the Reverend, I was under the spell of the "vibe," that intangible feeling that must be present in order to perform. I thought that everything around me had to be just right for my musical skills to function properly. Candles, incense, ambience - all vibe-inducing factors for many. For others, the vibe may come in a bottle or a bag.

Whatever the vibe of choice, the key characteristic they all share is that they are always external factors. The paradigm shift Reverend Watkins inspired in me was that the externals are irrelevant - the music is on the inside. The music is you, and what you have to say, expressed through whatever musical skills you possess. It matters not where you are, or whether there is a babbling brook running behind you.

The highest caliber artist can summon his expression anywhere, in any circumstance. It's like a faucet; he just turns it on or off according to his will. No matter what is going on around him, he can do his thing. Some of the finest musicians I have ever seen were street players in New York or New Orleans, playing some of the worst instruments I have ever seen.

And we've all seen monster players throwing down in some crappy bar somewhere, totally lost in their music and oblivious to their surroundings, which may include one light can near the stage and an audience that consists of a few scattered patrons having a beer or looking for love, none of whom are paying any attention to them.

To depend on certain external circumstances in order to express ourselves is really selling ourselves short as artists; it's self-imposed enslavement. Freedom is ours to perform whenever and wherever we desire.

I'm not saying there's anything wrong with being comfortable, or setting the mood that you prefer; that only becomes a problem when performance is impossible unless a certain "vibe" is there.

The lesson I learned from Reverend Watkins liberated me; it revolutionized my musicality. I no longer had to wait, I could just go. As an artist, I am only as strong as my weakest performance. If I can't perform well at 10 a. m., or in front of people with suits on, then I need more practice, because what I lack is the confidence that my fingers acquire from practicing.

The more time I spend with my instrument, the more confident my technique becomes, until execution becomes second nature. Then I just put it out there, no matter who or what is around me, because my mind trusts my fingers and will let them go and know that they will not let me down. And there is no fear of failure, and no ego to protect, because it has long since not been about ego. It's about art and getting it out.

You don't need a vibe supplied for you. Create the vibe with what you lay down.

And don't let the Reverend John hear you complaining about the lighting.