Shows I’ve Seen: American Acoustic Festival, Part II

Annnnnd, here is Part II! (See here for Part I)

One of the things I loved about living in Baltimore (take me back!) was being close enough to DC to commute down for events such as the American Acoustic Festival, while not actually having to live there 😉 No offense to my DC-based friends – it’s a beautiful city, but it’s hard to really feel at home when you’re forking over an unholy percentage of your paycheck for rent.

In addition to several nights of ticketed shows, the festival included free events that were open to the public. On Saturday, Mom and I attended two back-to-back workshops – “How to Play With Others” & “How to Sing With Others” – hosted by Chris Thile and featuring some the same musicians we saw the night before.

I thought watching these people play from the side balcony of the Kennedy Center was crazy, but seeing them from a mere 15 feet away in a small room was priceless. I sound like a credit card commercial, but I speak the truth. I hope to increase my interest rate in this blog.. har har har.

I knew the Kennedy Center was filming the workshops for their website, but I was pleasantly surprised to find the full-length, professional videos on YouTube. I’ve included them below.


American Acoustic @ The Kennedy Center – Washington, DC on 6/25/16

How To Play With Others, hosted by Chris Thile and ft. the Punch Brothers

How To Sing With Others, hosted by Chris Thile and ft. Sarah Jarosz & Aoife O’Donovan

Instead of separating the workshops out too much, I’m just going to write what’s popping into my head, which is working in stream-of-consciousness mode at the moment.

  • I definitely developed a thing for Noam Pickelny, banjo player of the Punch Brothers. What can I say? I like ’em dark, handsome, and armed with a banjo. Is a 9 year age difference too much? I didn’t see a ring… Are you into unemployed women with beer guts who live with their parents and have a man-eating dog?

Okay, I think that was the only stream-of-consciousness thought I had, really, and now that that’s out there, I can focus on the finer details. By finer, I mean “Damn, he so fine.”

I promise, I’m stopping now.

Watching these workshops made me realize how much I miss playing music with people. When it works, there’s a tangible connection between the players, a weird sort of electricity that is like nothing else I’ve ever experienced. These ladies and gents have “it.” All the memories of what I’d been taught while playing jazz in college came flooding back during this lecture, as I listened to them discuss how important it is to know your material well so that you can really focus on interacting and listening to each other during a performance.

My hang-up as a musician is that my nose is always in sheet music, chord charts, or lyrics. When you do that, you’re not interacting with the people around you, adjusting your playing to compliment them and vice versa. Even if you’re playing solo, there’s something missing. You’re using part of your brain to see what’s in front of you, when what you’re playing/singing should be second nature. Only then can you give your all to the music.

You can play the music proficiently, or you can play it at the caliber that gets you to the Kennedy Center. Listening, engaging, and musical talent/intuition is what makes the dynamic work. That seems like a “duh” sort of moment, but it’s something that really hit home when I watched the magic enfold right in front of me. Learning the music and working on the technical proficiency to play it belong in a practice room. Growing, developing, interpreting, and bringing the music to life evolve from being comfortable enough in your mastery of it to be able to focus solely on those elements within the dynamic of people you’re playing it with.

Maybe it’s just because I’m an awkward person, but I’ve found that the dynamic is easier to achieve when you’re with people you’re genuinely comfortable with outside of the musical realm. Chemistry is a weird thing, and comes in so many forms – friendship, romance, music, etc. You can have crazy musical chemistry with someone, but the idea of ever kissing them makes you want to hurl. (In all honesty, it’s better this way… otherwise some of our favorite duos would probably be defunct, if they aren’t already..)

With those same forms of chemistry come corresponding feelings of loneliness. I’ve been lonely for friends, for romance, and whatever else at times. After this show, I found myself achingly lonely for music.


The other element I really took away from these workshops should also seem fairly obvious, but it’s something else that really differentiates the good from the great. The devil may be in the details, but so is perfection.

I said the gist of this before, but it’s easy, relatively speaking, to get up on stage and play/sing all the notes correctly. During the vocal workshop, Aoife and Sarah discussed their I’m With Her harmonies, and how they once realized that they had all started simultaneously phrasing the end of a line a different way than they had previously, without ever having discussed it ahead of time. As musicians, they’re so in-tune (pun intended) with each other that they’re able to detect small cues that enable them to better sing/play as a unit.

As a listener, you may not consciously hear these ladies finish a harmonized note a couple seconds apart. The ear can be surface-level if we let it, and it’s great to be able to focus on the whole instead of analyzing each part. Four years of music school, however, turned me into an analyzer. Hearing a crisp, clean end to a phrase where each singer wraps the line with the same rhythm and resonance sounds very different than when their timing is a bit off and the ending is unintentionally slurred. You may not be able to pinpoint why one sounds better than the other upon comparison, but it does.

Ending the note at the same time. Adjusting your voice to blend better with the people you’re singing with. Breathing in the right places. Paying attention to dynamics and subtle changes in rhythm. Listening, really listening, to what the other players are doing, and adjusting yourself accordingly. Pushing your ego aside and doing what is best for the music.

I’ve always been so wrapped up in playing the right notes that I forget to do these things. That’s probably a good part of the reason I’m not playing at the Kennedy Center, aside from possessing only a teensie fraction of the raw talent these people have.


In summary..

I never really thought about the Punch Brother’s reason for positioning themselves around a single condenser microphone, but their explanation during this workshop really ties all of this together. The single-microphone technique forces them to self-mix. If Noam (*swoon*) plays a banjo solo, the rest of the group steps away from the microphone so that his instrument cuts through more prominently. If they need the fiddle melody to sound softer in the overall texture, Gabe has to step back. These are details that a listener might take for granted, but if they all played at the same level and position around the microphone for the entire show, something would be off. They would probably still sound good, but this practice forces them to really listen to each other, which makes them great.

Looking through YouTube, I originally wanted to post a video of Chris and Aoife singing her song “Porch Light,” which I’ll admit, made my eyes well up at the workshop. It’s in the “How To Sing With Others” video above, but for a separate performance, see here.

However, with everything I just talked about – listening, details, and chemistry – this video, despite the poor quality, really brings all the elements. Look at the way these people interact with each other, the genuine joy, the way that every detail – instrumental and vocal – clicks together. I posted a different version of this song yesterday, but check out this video.

Okay, fine. This one, too. I can’t get enough of these damn people.

Thank you, Chris Thile and the Kennedy Center, for putting on these free events that made me realize how much I love music ❤