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Our Homecoming: Gearing Up To Make A Triumphant Return To The Road

Perspective on this difficult period and preparing to come back to touring and function at the highest level possible.

Can you feel it? There’s something in the air. It feels to me a lot like optimism.

As the vaccination program rolls out and gigs start to be tentatively rescheduled, it feels like there’s a countdown on to the day when I’ll finally be back behind a mixing desk. It simultaneously feels like freedom and homecoming.

I’ve been lucky to have an alternative skillset of teaching yoga to fall back on during the last year, and that’s been my main focus. But now it’s time to start adjusting my headspace back to touring and prepare myself so that I can come back at the highest level possible and pick up as good as – or maybe better than – I left off.

Staying In Touch

All industries are relationship centric to some extent, but live music is more so than most. Jobs in touring are not generally advertised – it’s an “existing contact, word-of-mouth” situation – and as a freelancer your reputation and network are everything. The saving grace of the pandemic has been the fact that it’s so much easier to stay connected than it was in the pre-internet era (for those of us who remember that!)

Thankfully this relationship-centric business means that my colleagues and employers are also friends, and there’s been a generally supportive environment on social media as we sought connection with others from our tribe; those who “get” us in a way that perhaps our home-friends and family don’t.

It Wasn’t All Bad

This experience has been a mixed bag for many, with occasional unexpected positive discoveries, so I’m figuring out how to maintain things that I’ve embraced as I step into the next phase of my life. I’ve been able to mentor people irrespective of physical location as we all settled into a “new normal” of life on Zoom. Previously I wouldn’t have considered that – perhaps even been snobbish about the lack of in-person connection – and yet now it makes perfect sense to continue.

I’ve also embraced online learning in a way that I wouldn’t have done before, and I welcome the new dimension and wealth of opportunities it brings. I’ll be using much of my remaining time at home to focus on enriching my skills in areas which get neglected in the busyness of my touring life, getting a little more “under-the-hood” with some of my favorite technology. Throughout the lockdown I’ve been in touch with developers and manufacturers about their ideas and innovations, and now I’m shifting into a mode of discussing how we can incorporate those into my existing workflow.

Critical Listening

Music has been a huge source of comfort and inspiration to me over the last year (over my entire life actually, but especially so recently), and I’m starting to listen with a more focused, critical ear again. It became more of a “right-brain” thing for me in lockdown, being carried by the emotion of music; now I’m re-engaging the “left-brain” analytical element that serves me at work. It’s the marriage of these two aspects that I so love about being a sound engineer and it’s fun feeling all the synapses start to fire in that critical listening way again.

I’ve also been using a tone generator to make sure my frequency recognition is still accurate, which I’ve turned into a bit of a game. I’ll be getting a hearing check soon too, something I recommend doing regularly anyway, just to make sure that everything is in good shape.

The view from stage left at Dublin’s Croke Park stadium for a show with Westlife.

Rembering The Feeling

I’ve always loved rockumentaries and watching them over the last year has helped me to stay connected with “that” feeling – the love and inspiration and energy which music, especially live music, arouses in me. AC/DC’s Brian Johnson’s series “A Life on the Road,” where he hangs out with different rock stars and chats about their history, is a particular favorite at the moment.

Being Adaptable

I’m staying open to the fact that my return might not look exactly as I expect and keeping well away from any anxious “what if” mental monologue. “What if” is incredibly useful in the prep phase of a tour when I’m brainstorming plan B’s and spares and protocols for when things go wrong; however, it’s not helpful to speculate about factors that I don’t yet have enough information to make plans about.

Brushing Up

I’m keenly aware that my workflow, honed over 25 years on the road, is now going to be rusty. To that end I’m planning to do a couple of extra prep days when the time comes, unpaid if necessary, to re-familiarize myself with what all the buttons do!

I don’t want to be scratching my head and causing delays when a band member asks for a longer reverb on the acoustic guitar or a bit more bite on the bass, so I’ll allow plenty of time to get back into top gear before the glorious moment when I have a roomful of musicians in front of me.

I’m Still Standing

The final step is getting used to standing up for extended periods again! Life on the road means long days on my feet, only sitting down for meals – and like most of us I sat down a lot more over the last year than I ever normally would.

So, as I sign off from writing this at my makeshift standing desk (a pile of books under my laptop), I’m counting down the days until it’s the screen of a console in front of me instead. Until then, I wish you a speedy and joyous return to our life on the road – our homecoming.

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