The Teaching Taylors

Rob Hochschild
May 31, 2000
Livingston and James Taylor
James Taylor
Photo by Rob Hochschild
Photo by Rob Hochschild

Just another day at Berklee. Professor and songwriter Livingston Taylor, a seasoned performer and composer of Top-40 hits, is holding court in Recital Hall 1W, as he does every Tuesday, teaching a Stage Performance Techniques class. But Taylor's class, which has become an essential rite of passage for Berklee's performing songwriters, is far from ordinary. He stands in front of 25 students, giving more of a dramatic monologue than a lecture. With every motion, every word, he embodies the performance skills he talks about throughout the class. His voice rises to a loud whine when he pretends to be the angry musician for whom success isn't coming fast enough, than it drops to a soft whisper as he makes a summarizing point for the class. Students are hanging on every word, laughing, nodding their heads in agreement, scribbling notes. Taylor has been performing live for more than 30 years and teaching at Berklee for a decade, and he seems to pour every ounce of that experience into his presentation.

After Taylor begins the class by talking about the "conversational" aspects of performance, comparing it to "a large game of Simon Says," he goes in a different direction on this day, spending the next hour discussing strategies musicians can use to market themselves and their music. This is a subject for which Taylor can draw on not only on his own experience but on that of a particularly famous member of his family.

"Like my brother James tells me, 'I accompany my music to the marketplace.' He promoted it hard and aggressively and that's why he has the career he has."

For students in attendance, those words were particularly resonant, because everyone in the room that day knew that James Taylor would be stopping by to put the cap on his brother's class. Heads turned toward the door after Livingston's comment, but still no sign of James. But word had gotten around, and during the past hour, another 100 or so students and faculty members had crowded into the room for a glimpse of the songwriting legend.

Later, while one of Livingston's students is putting to use her performance techniques at the piano in an adventurously discordant instrumental version of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit," James Taylor quietly glides into the room and folds his tall, thin frame into an aisle seat. Moments later, he is sitting on the 1W stage, next to his brother, giving his own take on the musician life. Yup, just another day at Berklee.

During his one-hour talk on April 7, James Taylor talked about performing, life on the road, songwriting, the hazards of drugs, and the challenges of working in the music industry. The following are excerpts from the class:

"There are people that I think of during my set who help me relax. There was a certain way that Eddie Murphy used to be when he performed on Saturday Night Live. He had this sort of liquid, kind of juicy "here I am" way of just being completely comfortable and present. I think about a certain smile that would play on his lips and that would help me. Or I'll think of some passage I read from some hippie freak's new zen text where you sort of do away with your self and be in the moment and let go of your clinging and attachment to your car or your anxiety about how you're doing and all this stuff.

"There's also a lot to be said for being prepared, having looked at the place where you're going to perform and having done a sound check. The point is I want to be there ahead of time. I want to be prepared. I want to have had a decent nights sleep. I don't want to be tired. I want to be in good voice. I'll go through my half hour exercise. I want to make sure my strings are changed and my guitar is in tune. I want to make sure I've got my clothes on, my wardrobe is right, my in ear monitors are screwed in right, the whole thing is working, the battery is changed, there's water on stage next to me, that I know the set list is going to be laid out.

"I want to have all of my anchors basically in place so that I have a chance of transcending my initial nerves, and then I want the first few songs to be bullet proof. I want them to be pretty easy to get through. I want them to soothe me. You make music first of all with yourself as the audience, so play the first couple of songs as much to yourself as to other people and choose things that are going to put you in a better state. And also, once you've made the decision to be there, to give yourself, don't be tentative, recalcitrant, sulky about it.

"The other thing is, to do this work, as Livingston is fond of saying and has written, and has showed with his physical work: 'We are not members of the French aristocracy before the revolution, we are blue collar workers here who do physical work.' We have to have had a good night's sleep, we have to have eaten. You may think that substances help you, that a cup of coffee, or a couple of stiff belts, or a half a valium, will help. Learn to do without it. In my case I've given up everything, hopefully for good, and certainly for the past seventeen years. Life is complicated enough. It was my friend in the beginning. It turned on me in a big way. I was the last one to know. I feel like a fool but I'm grateful that I don't do it anymore. Don't mess with the dope, don't even bother.

"I've never been to a stadium to see a show that belongs in a stadium, other than a football game. You know what I mean? Music doesn't belong in a stadium and I'm hard pressed to believe that it actually belongs at (The Tweeter Center), to tell you the truth. If you're playing to ten thousand people, a lot of your energy goes into trying to be bigger than you are. In my case, if your shtick is an intimate kind of personal evening, it begins to be sort of ironic and contradictory. My favorite size venue to play is about 2,000.

"(Songwriting) takes solitude. Quiet uninterrupted time and long stretches of boredom. I also find that going to sleep, taking a short, ten-minute nap, is like sending the bucket down into the well and you bring it back up and maybe something's in it. It's an unconscious thing you know, the place where it all comes from. . . I usually write on the guitar. I very seldom write without a guitar. I'll get involved in a couple of musical wheels going around and around and then the music will suggest an emotion. The emotion and the rhythm of the music will suggest a lyric and a certain cadence, and if I'm lucky, something will fall into place and be the germ of a song. It's not a very directed process."

Student question: When hiring musicians for a record or going on tour, what attributes do you look for in these musicians, in particular, in drummers?

"It's been such a personal process that I haven't ever thought it in terms of a method. Usually when I have had to fill a chair and audition, if it's a drummer I'll ask the bass player, if it's a bass player I'll ask the drummer, "Who do you recommend?" Play with a number of different people. Part of it is musical, part of it is what we call the "bus factor." What is it going to be like to travel on a bus for six months with this person? It's just an ineffable kind of thing. Send out a tape. Play through your four songs together. Talk for a while. Have some coffee and make a decision based on everybody in the band. That's how it's been for me. I like a drummer who plays musically. I like there to be as much space in the music as possible. I like a (Jim) Keltner type, a (Steve) Gadd type. I like it when it's not like a drum machine is going constantly and everybody is chained into it. Trust in the music and in the ensemble to open it up and let there be a lot of space in it.

"The artistic temperament is not very given to taking care of business. It's very strange to be a person who has been forced by their life situation into a position where they need to create their own art, invent themselves, communicate though their art. It implies a certain amount of alienation and a certain amount of detachment or separateness to have an artistic temperament. And then you're expected to come into the marketplace and know what you're doing, but you feel as though you're on a different planet. That's why you need a lawyer to help. Perhaps there's a paralegal, or someone who is just getting started in the music business, or someone who can weed through a contract and say "This is way out of line," or "You don't want to give this away." Especially now, today. People are asking for things in contracts like rights for media that haven't been invented yet. Everything's changing. In the next month I'm doing a month of basically work, guesting on other peoples' projects, performing pro bono and doing benefits and basically doing work that I'm not getting paid for and I have ten thousand dollars in legal fees trying to protect those from not being abused, so its really a remarkable sort of conundrum."