It’s All In Your Head

It was back in 2005. I was in a bind. I had given it my all, but it simply wasn’t good enough. Two and a half months of intensive touring were behind me, when I found out that my professional skills were being criticized behind my back, and my position as guitar technician was in danger. The crew leaders were voting for giving me the boot, but the band – especially the guitarist – were equally vocal in demanding I stay with the band. The band thought I should be given the chance to really learn the ropes and improve my track record. Problem was, the open air festival season was fast approaching, but I was far too slow to get the job done successfully in the pressure cooker environment of a festival. When doing club gigs, the rest of the crew would kind of grind their teeth and cover for me, but a festival gig is an altogether different kettle of fish. Ironically, it was the most experienced member of the crew (read: the guy who wanted me out most badly) who gave me the most valuable piece of advice:

“Man, you should really sit down, think hard, and then make a list of all the things you have to do before the gig and afterwards!”

His words echoed in my mind, when we took a month off after the first leg of the tour. I had one month’s worth of time to find a way to do my job more efficiently. Suddenly, one morning it simply clicked and I finally understood what this all was really about. 

I had studied classical guitar for several years. I had received excellent instruction, both from a physical and mechanical perspective, as well as mentally. My teacher valued my enthusiasm and also shared with me some of the (unpublished) material the conservatory’s main guitar educationist, Juan Antonio Muro used in his classes. One paragraph read as follows: 

“Play” the difficult parts, as well as the whole work, in your head, without using your instrument. Play it with the notation in front of you, but also try to play it by heart; sing or hum at the same time you imagine your fingers fretting and plucking the string. You’re not really playing, you are imagining. Your instrument is still in its case. You will train your “internal ear” inside your head to hear the notes, while you train your mind to connect a sound to a specific spot on the fretboard. 

I had successfully mastered this technique of mental training when practising complicated classical pieces. I can still recall the moments of delightful realization in my tiny bed-sitter in the centre of the city. 

Lying on the bed and letting the music play in my head. I can “see” how my right middle finger plucks the string at the same time the ring finger on my left hand frets it at the right spot. In the physical world my hands don’t move, I’m lying motionless on my bed. All of a sudden the music comes to a crashing halt; I’m stuck, I don’t know what to do. My brain isn’t sending any impulses to my fingers. I get out the sheet music and go over my annotations. What was I supposed to play here? I take out my guitar and check my fingering for the bar I had forgotten. Then I “rewind” the music a couple of bars in my head, and start to “play” again. I reach the promlematic spot and make it through without hesitation. Great! I play the piece to the end, and feel utterly exhausted. Time for a break… 

This kind of mental training is really very exhausting, but I was quickly starting to reap the rewards. Mental training made it possible for me to master intricate musical pieces that had seemed impossible to play before. And I can still remember them all. The music isn’t sitting in my muscle memory, instead it is deeply ingrained in my mind.

Remembering this, I started wondering whether I could apply the same technique to my work as a guitar technician. How does a normal gig go down? What are the things I do, and how do I do them? At first it was hard visualizing everything, so I got myself a piece of paper and a pen to get my thoughts organized. 

It seemed that most of my wasted time was due to me running around the stage with no clear plan. My own workplace was in the wings, off to one side of the stage. Tearing down the equipment in my mind I noticed that I seemed to lack order and efficiency. So I tried resequencing my teardown procedures in my head, until I became exhausted. I carried on mulling over the best way to organize my work for the next few days, until I got the sequence right. I could see it all in my head. I would have been able to step onstage right away to demonstrate my improved teardown procedure, if the backline wouldn’t have been thousands of miles away! My new and improved list of events looked like this:

Pack up the tools, pack up my workbench, switch the three amplifiers to “standby”, unplug the speaker cables at the amp head end, take off the gaffa tape, get ready to pack up the leads, unplug the pedalboard cables from the racks, take off the gaffa tape, get ready to pack up the leads, disconnect the wireless antennae, and unplug our own XLR-cables from the house PA/stage box. 

Do a turn on stage, starting behind the drum riser (stage right), going to the front of the stage and returning to the starting point (coming full circle): Unplug the speaker cables from the guitar cabinets and wrap them up neatly, repeat for the longer counterparts on the bass amp side. Hang the coiled-up cables around your arm and proceed to the front of the stage. Wrap up the leads for the bass pedalboard, and place the pedalboard on the bass riser. At stage right, do the same for the guitar pedalboard and its cables. 

I felt quite impatient to get to try out my new strategy in real life in front of the band and crew. I had been given a deadline of two months to either get up to speed or get my plane ticket home. As it turned out, it only took me two days to convince everybody I was up to the job of guitar tech.

My newly developed teardown regime speeded up my part of the job considerably (to only about a tenth of the time I needed previously). I’ll never forget the surprised faces of my colleagues when I announced that I was done, opening a can of well-cooled brew.

Over the next few gigs our drum tech tried to speed up his post-gig procedure – using brute force and sheer willpower – to become as fast as I was, but he was doomed to fail. Oh yes, crew members do occasionally compete among themselves when it comes to speed and style. 

A few years went by, and I was working for a different band. Again I found myself in a tight spot, somehow out of my depth, not in my comfort zone. We had to deal with a few strange venues, and I had started to lag behind. Our seasoned production manager threw me a lifeline:

“Hey, man, why don’t you start packing up some of the gear while the show’s still on? Everybody does it! Just sit down and make yourself a plan!” 

Just a moment; hadn’t I heard this before? Had I drifted back into the same sort of situation I had experienced only five years ago? I valued the guy’s opinion very much, so it was back to the drawing board for me, again.

The next day I tried to view things from a different perspective, before sitting down on the sofa in the back of our tour bus. I put the radio down on the floor, put my feet up and closed my eyes. “You’ve been here before”, I told myself, and started the tiring process of mental training. This time it proved to be easier, even though it still drained my batteries. 

In the evening, it seemed like the proverbial hill was far less steep. I managed to tear down the backline and pack everything up as fast as the drum technician. The next evening I was even quicker, and then even managed to improve on this the following night. The look on the drum tech’s face was a sight to behold, as I leaned back on the flight cases, and opened a cool brew with a grin on my face. He tried to compensate for his loss in speed by growling at the stage hands, but I knew that he was doomed to fail. Like his colleague five years before him, the poor guy never managed to catch up with me again.

When I was doing some festivals this year I found myself representing what you might call the “old-timers” among us techs. I happened to come across a very promising young lad that was trying to come to grips with some of the same types of problems I had encountered when I started out. It seemed unfair to be standing there watching that guy sweating blood every day. 

I tried to give him some valuable advice about mental training techniques and their benefits. He seemed to feel a bit intimidated. Was he afraid that his job might be on the line? On the other hand, maybe my imposing physical size makes me a less-than-ideal candidate for giving out a piece of friendly advice. 

I felt for that guy, as I watched him struggle with all the chaos. Maybe it is easier to get my message across by writing this post. Yes, man, this article is meant for you! Straight from my heart…

20.8.2014 Kimmo Aroluoma (translated by: Martin Berka, cover picture by: Mika Kirsi))
The author is one of Custom Sounds’ owners, and an incorrigible guitar and gear enthusiast