A few years ago Big D (my husband) had a question for me about a song by The Police. He played “Spirits in the Material World” and asked me to pay close attention to the verses. I love The Police, so I don’t know how I had missed this song for so many years, but Big D often introduces me to incredible music. Something about this song perplexed him. He could play the chords on guitar, and the rhythm is repetitive, but something felt tricky about it. It was throwing him. Big D is brilliant at playing by ear. In fact, he was my inspiration to incorporate playing by ear in my lessons; a tool often denied piano students. So, I assumed the problem he was having stemmed from band worship. It happens when we listen to musicians we admire, like The Beatles. In most musicians’ minds, they are so high above us, everything they did is so genius, so untouchable that we listen and think, “I can’t possibly play that.” Of course, playing it correctly and really playing it are two entirely different things.
But this time it wasn’t band worship. It took me a little while, but listening with fresh ears, I discovered that The Police were doing the easiest and hardest thing – playing on the offbeat. For those of you who aren’t musicians and don’t know what the offbeat is, it’s really simple. Think of that guy in church, or your friend with no musical ability at a concert, who’s always clapping in-between the concord clapping of the crowd. Everyone can feel the beat but him. He’s on the offbeat. The difference between that guy and what The Police do in this song (besides doing it on purpose) is their ability to stay on the offbeat – a difficult thing to do, especially at that pace. Even more impressive, The Police have removed the down beat entirely (the beat everyone but that guy is clapping), giving the musician the sensation of being lost.
I heard this song again on the radio the other day, and it made me think of the life of a musician. Playing on the offbeat isn’t just what we do, it’s how we live. And it’s what makes so many of us, let’s face it, weird. It’s also why we feel very lost at times. When we begin our journey into professional musicianship, we don’t plan on suffering for our art. No one plans for that. We’re not the lionhearted, we are the sensitive artiste and our first steps are compelled, not chosen. The steps after that feel logical – another step, another year, and another figure you can’t make out, just around the bend. What is it? You have to know. So, you keep stepping. One step leads to another, until you’re so far down the road, you can’t see the starting point. This road is often dark (because the electricity has been disconnected) and lonely (because all of our friends have “real jobs” making “real money”). People are having families, getting promotions, buying houses, and even though we took the road alone, it feels like we’re the ones that got left behind.
Here’s the good news. The more someone plays on the offbeat, the more it feels normal, sounds normal, and looks normal – even to those around them. Sometimes that guy in church is so persuasively enthusiastic that he wins over the crowd, and they begin clapping with him. And here’s my theory. Embrace the weirdness, lean into the offbeat, and eventually the world will sing your song.
– Anita, Noted in Nashville