Sound City and McCartney’s Ease: A quest to be more like Paul this summer

The context:

I recently had a chance to see the movie, Sound City at the IU Cinema. Here’s an NPR story about it (Read it). It’s a fun documentary that chronicles the life of a recording studio by the same name in LA (Sound City Studios). It’s a neat story of a studio that seemed to have played a major role in the careers of some well-known pop/rock acts – the bits about Fleetwood Mac, Neil Young, Tom Petty, Johnny Cash, and Nirvana were particularly fun for me. The movie also covers the stories of the people ‘behind the scenes’ who operated the business and technical elements of the studio – which in lots of ways were more interesting than the musicians’ stories.

The centerpiece of the documentary is a Neve 8028 Console, a vintage piece of analog recording equipment that was integral to the studio’s success. There’s a hilarious scene where the designer of the board, Rupert Neve, is sitting with Dave Grohl explaining the electronics that allows for the console to capture such a great sound. The scene is hilarious because Dave Grohl is grinning like a clown and is in full admission that he has no idea what he’s talking about.

Fair warning if you’re thinking of watching the movie… It’s a documentary with a biased view of the music business – particularly biased against elements of digital recording technology – but, it’s mainly an entertaining movie.

The “last act” of the documentary is when Dave Grohl moves the soundboard to his house and many of the musicians with a history at Sound City Studios come over for what’s presented as a spontaneous jam/writing/recording session.

Finally, Paul McCartney comes in to play with Dave Grohl and all the other guys who were in Nirvana – it’s a great jam and they seem to hit it off quickly and easily.

The quote (that inspired this post):

At the end of the movie, when a bit of a tune came out right with him and McCartney and others, Dave Grohl asks “Why can’t it always be this easy?” To which, McCartney responds with grace – “It is.”

This leads to a couple of questions:

(1) What is the ‘it?’  —-  Making fun music.

(2) Why is it easy for Sir Paul?

Because he’s Sir Paul – and for some or even most, I’m sure that’s enough to say… …he’s a Beatle for goodness sake!

But, in case you might need more….

We all know that “it” is not really easy all the time, but for Sir Paul it is, because he’s an expert

  • He’s practiced his craft (a lot)
  • His experience has allowed him to develop ways of doing and thinking about playing music that are simultaneously flexible, intuitive, and incredibly skillful
  • He’s confident, unassuming, and appears genuinely interested and enthusiastic in regards to the process of making music
  • He’s comfortable expressing himself as an artist
  • He works well with others
  • He’s a nice guy
  • He’s Zen in his old age

Overall, I’m thinking it wouldn’t hurt to aim to be a little like Paul McCartney in whatever we hope to do. Practice, flexibility, dedication, confidence, humility, enthusiasm, niceness, are all surely compatible with making great music, being a great teacher, or doing great research. Sounds like a good orientation for summer projects…


NOTE: This is written with full realization that the version of Sir Paul described in this one small instance is an idealized version — he’s only human like the rest of us, see for example: How do you sleep.

Related reading:

  • For expertise in general: Ericsson, K. A., Charness, N., Feltovich, P. J., & Hoffman, R. R. (Eds.). The Cambridge handbook of expertise and expert performance. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
  • For expertise in teaching: Berliner, D. C. (2001). Learning about and learning from expert teachers. International Journal of Educational Research, 35, 463-482. doi:10.1016/S0883-0355(02)00004-6

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