Bamboo Cyberdream

a panda wanders the electronic landscape

Practice and Performance

I’ve always loved karaoke, but was disappointed with singing games because they seemed overly focused on precision, thus missing out on the glorious looseness of a live performance. It could also be that I found it very difficult to get my friends to gather around and sing into a video game. Rock Band, at least, has been a big help with the latter issue, and has also let discover the wonders of drums. Extraordinary. But I digress.

My team and I play Rock Band fairly regularly at work — that is, we come in on weekends since there are conveniently large rooms and no neighbors to bother at our office. Occasionally we have guests come by — friends of the team who want to see what this game is is all about. In deference to our guests, we typically start up with some of the easier songs, which means I’ve gotten very good at singing “Say It Ain’t So.” (Or more precisely: I’ve gotten very experienced at singing “Say It Ain’t So.”)

Which brings me back to karaoke. Rock Band contains a number of songs that were previous karaoke standards for me. “Say It Ain’t So” is a song to do after screwing up a previous song, to get the audience back on your side. “Creep” is good if you’re feeling a bit emo and don’t want to push your voice. Et cetera. Unfortunately, Rock Band, especially at the higher levels, demands a certain amount of conformance in how you want to sing the song. It makes sense, since I’m not sure how else you would judge a vocal performance, but I very much missed the ability to improvise a bit or, with Weezer, sing along with the guitar part.

Recently, I went out to a local watering hole that is known for being a quality karaoke venue in Los Angeles. My friends and I were celebrating the Giants’ victory in the Super Bowl, and after the requisite “We Are The Champions,” I signed up to sing “Say It Ain’t So.” I had already nearly blown out my voice screaming at the television, and wanted to do a song I knew cold.

It wasn’t until I had the microphone in my hand that I realized those Rock Band sessions had been excellent practice for a live performance. I knew the structured lines of the song so well that I actually felt more free in singing it. I could go off on my own for a little bit with the confidence that I could find my way back. It was like someone had taken the training wheels off my bike, and I could now go faster and turn more sharply. The audience ate it up.

Most importantly, I could sing along with the guitar part that comes right after the bridge. Which is really the whole point of the song.

It reminded me of those years I spent doing theatre — how it would take weeks for the actors to get off-book, and only then could the real work begin. I’ve known all the words to that song since high-school, but didn’t really know it until I had been forced to match Rivers’s performance note-for-note multiple times over the course of several weeks. This also highlights one of the biggest problems I’ve had with music games, dating back to Parrapa the Rapper and its ilk1: They don’t train you to be a musician; they train you to be a repetition monkey. You don’t get the glorious feeling of creating something live, you’re just re-creating2.

But it sure makes decent practice for the real thing.

1 To be fair, I adore Parrapa the Rapper.

2 Re-creation —> recreation. This is an etymology I must investigate further.