Practice The Way You Want To Play

Recently I had a Skype lesson with someone who wanted to learn more about practicing and while we talked about a lot of different elements of things to work on I forgot to mention one critical thing (that may be a good reminder for you):

When you’re practicing you should practice material the way you ultimately want to play it.

(Be forewarned – this simple sentence requires some context.)

When I was living in small apartments I was really mindful of other people and not disturbing them and made sure that when I practiced that I was really quiet.

Guess what happened when I went to play live?  You couldn’t hear me or make out a single thing I was playing.

You can’t practice something in a passive or lethargic way and expect to play it aggressively /dynamically / with conviction / in a way that creates a moment in a live context.

This is one reason I recommend that people work on specific licks or approaches for short periods of time as a big part of practice is examining nuance and attention to detail.

Here’s (one way) how I approach something new I need to learn in a practice session.

1.  Figure out what I’m playing (and why I’m working on it)

Even before I go to a metronome, I make sure I understand what I’m playing.  If I’m going to add it to my musical vocabulary – I need to understand how it fits in a context.  Examples of this would be:

“Ah..it’s a pentatonic based lick”
“It’s an arpeggio pattern based on harmonic minor chords”
“It’s a scale I’m not familiar with” (Then I need to learn that as well).

The why is generally, “it sounds cool.” but usually it’s tied to a specific song, solo or approach for something I’m going to play in front of people or record.

2.  Figure out where to put all my fingers

Again, still no sign of a metronome yet!  Here I’m looking at the fretboard shapes involved and make sure that I understand what I need to do physically to perform it.  Recently, I was working on a descending scalar pattern for an original tune and realized that the fingering I was using was really difficult and didn’t sound that great.  Even playing it at the slowest possible tempo, it was difficult to get the articulation I wanted.  After about 5 minutes of running options, I discovered a string skipping shape that made it much easier t play and (more importantly) sounded better.

Included in this step is also  addressing what the fingers of the picking or tapping hand need to do.

3.  Understand the phrasing

Usually I’ll try to sing along with the line to help internalize it.  I’m not a vocalist.  You’ll never hear me on American idol.  I don’t do it because it sounds good, I do it so I can really internalize the rhythms and the phrasing.  Tapping my foot helps a lot with that as well…..

I heard a guitarist of some renown play recently and I was shocked at just how bad the phrasing on his tunes was.  Every note was played in the right order but it just didn’t sound musical at all.

4. 
Set a metronome marking

There are a couple of ways I’ll do this but in general I’ll find the fastest tempo I can perform the idea following the 3 T’s (Tone, Timing and hand tension and by “perform” I mean playing it totally in the pocket and every note jumping out at the listener.) and then move it up a few metronome markings until it starts to fall apart.

One place where I think some people get hung up on this is (on the physical side of practicing) equating playing with conviction = playing aggressively = playing with excessive tension.  As the saying goes,

“Tension is trying to be where I think I should be”
“Relaxed is being where I am”

Take your time getting to this step if you need to!  I might be practicing the idea for a couple of sessions before I even get to the point where I can play it in time.  I work on playing the phrase with conviction and intent and then worry about tempo.  Playing all the notes on the guitar quickly doesn’t mean much if you can’t move listeners when doing so.

Eventually, you’ll get to the point where your overall level comes up and you can start playing things closer to the tempo you hear it.

5.  Do.  Observe. Correct (if necessary).

That’s the crux of it right there.  Not getting emotional about what you’re doing or getting hung up on where you should be – just performing it.  Observing what worked.  Correct if necessary.  If I can play something 3-5 times without a mistake – I’ll generally bump up the metronome a few markings and try it again.

(Make sure to check out The Practicing Mind: Developing Focus and Discipline in Your Life by Thomas M. Sterner for more on this.  I had another descriptive but I liked his description of “Do Observe Correct” so much that I use it in my own teaching now)

6.  Keep track of what I’m doing and work on it daily

This is an old topic for me but daily focused work makes the difference.  Writing it down let’s you see what kind of progress you’re making.

As a shortcut think of it this way (I stole this from a book that is definitely worth reading – The Champion’s Mind: How Great Athletes Think, Train, and Thrive by Jim Afremo)

You want to practice like you’re the number 2 player in the world and have something to prove.  Practice with grit and drive and instead of being totally focused on the end goal – try to be engaged in the process of what you’re doing.

Having said that, when you play or perform – you want to do so like the #1 players in the world.  Those players play with no tension.  Their hands are lose and relaxed and they’re focused but not over-focused.

If you practice in an engaged manner you’re more likely to perform in an engaged manner and that’s a good thing.

There’s a lot more to practice than what I’ve outlined here (If you check the blueprints page you’ll see a lot of material specifically related to guitar practicing) – but I really think that the steps I outlined offer a reasonable starting point and (perhaps more importantly) can be applied to any skill set you want to achieve.

That’s it for now!  I hope this helps and as always thanks for reading!

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2014: How Not To Repeat The Mistakes Of The Past (Or Nothing Ever Got Done With An Excuse)

It’s that time of year again…

(This is a repost of something I wrote for the end of 2009.  The dates and information have been updated, and this has become one of the few yearly repost traditions I indulge in.)

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At the end of every year, I typically take the last week between Christmas and New Years to wind down and center.  It not only helps me take stock of what worked and didn’t work for me in in the year but also helps me make sure I’m on track for what I want to get done moving forward.  As George Santayana said,

“Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

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As 2013 draws to a close, I think back to many conversations I had with people at the end of 2009.  At that time, it seemed like everyone I talked to said the same thing, “2009 was such a bad year.  2010 has to be better.  It just has to.”

Now it seems I’m listening to the same sentiment with the same people about 2013 and the coming 2014.  And in some ways they have a valid point.  Listening to their circumstances, 2013 certainly offered some of these people a tough blow – but regardless of their circumstances, I believe that, unless they experience a windfall of good fortune, I will hear the same sentiments echoed at the end of 2014.  There’s a reason for this:

“If you always do what you’ve always done – you’ll always get what you always got” – anon

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While I fully appreciate the merits of planning and goal setting – life will throw you any number of curveballs that may make a meticulously laid out plan get derailed.

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A good plan has to be countered with an ability to improvise (as need be) to make sure that even if your mode of transportation is disabled, that you are still on the path to achieve your goals.

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“Improvisation as a practice is the focus of an idea through an imposed restriction.  This restriction could either be self-imposed or could be imposed upon the improviser through other means.

Improvisation as it relates to common experience can be seen in the example of the car that stops running in the middle of a trip.  A person experienced in auto repair may attempt to pop the hood of the car to see if they can ascertain how to repair the vehicle.  Or they may try to flag down help.  Or they may try to use a cell phone to contact a garage.  The point being that within the context of a vehicle malfunction, different actions are improvised based on the improviser’s facility with both the situation at hand and the tools at their disposal.

….life is essentially an improvisation.  As individuals we come into each day not exactly knowing what will happen.  We know that there is an eventual end, but we don’t know when or how it will end.  But we continue to improvise, because it is in both the active improvisation (the present), the skill set and knowledge of that improvisation (the past) and in the philosophical/worldview/goals guiding our improvisational choices (the future) that we create meaning.”

 

If you approach life’s problems with the same mindset you’ve always had 

-and your new year’s resolutions run contrary to that mindset –

your resolutions are doomed.

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I say this as a seasoned graduate of the school of hard knocks and as a person who found that while success feels a lot better – ultimately failure is a much more thorough teacher.

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2013 had some great ups and downs for me and now there are a number of life and playing upgrades I’m going to put into practice in 2014 to address the things that didn’t work for me.  For those of you who are interested in making a real change the new year – here’s what worked for me going into 2013 that I plan on using this year as well:

 

Know the big picture.

If you have a goal – know why you have the goal.  As Victor Frankl once said, “He who has a why can endure almost any how.

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Take stock of what you have done and identify what needs to change.

Have you done things that work towards that goal?  If so, what have you really done? What worked?  What didn’t work?  And what parameters can you put in place to make it work better?

What decisions did you make that set you back and how could you alter those decisions in the future?

Sometimes honesty is brutal but this isn’t about beating yourself up.  It’s about taking a realistic stock of what worked and what didn’t work for you in the year, reinforcing that things that work for you and discarding what didn’t work for you.

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Revolution not resolution

People typically make resolutions because they recognize a need for change in their life.

Personally, change hasn’t been about making a momentary decision as a knee jerk reaction to something (which usually lasts as long as the time it took to make that decision).

The long-lasting changes in my life have come from making lifestyle changes, setting priorities and working within those changes.  Change is not a temporary compromise to a current observation but is instead a revolt against habitual modes of thinking and operation. 

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Positive habits

Making something a daily positive habit (like brushing your teeth) makes it easier to maintain over the long haul. (See my post about the value of rituals for more on this.)

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“Don’t make excuses – make it right” –  Al Little

People make excuses for things all the time.  No one cares about excuses because nothing ever got done with an excuse.  People (typically) only care about results.

There will undoubtably be moments that you relapse into older habits.  Instead of making excuses for why it happened – just acknowledge it and move past it. When you fall off the bike, it’s not about sitting down and nursing your scrapes.  It’s about getting back up on the bike again.  As it says in The Hagakure“Seven times down – eight times up”

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There’s strength in numbers

Try to surround yourself with supportive people.

  • Not enabling people who will make changes more difficult for you.
  • Not negative or judgmental people who will scoff at your desire for change

Like minded people who have goals and are motivated.

Talk to the friends and family who will give honest and supportive feedback.  Here’s another important tip – don’t burn those people out with your goals.  The people around you have their own lives, so if every conversation becomes about you and your goals, you’re going to see less and less of those people!

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In addition to (or in some cases in lieu of) that support, you may want to look into some free online accountability sites like Idonethis.com (post on this here) or Wunderlist.com which maintains a private calendar to help observe progress.

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Commit to One Change

It’s easy to get hung up and overwhelmed with the specifics of a long term goal.  Try making one lifestyle change and commit to seeing that through.  (Again, you can read my post about the value of rituals for more on this.)

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Be motivated to do more but be grateful for what you have

Finally, I’d like to thank everyone who took a moment to come here and read my writing.  I hope this helps you in some way shape or form and I hope that 2014 is your best year yet.

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Guit-A-Grip Podcast Episode #14 – Book Excerpt And Some Project Management Tips

Hello everyone!

Episode #14

Guit-A-Grip podcast episode #14 “Nothing Ever Got Done With An Excuse Excerpt #3″ is out and available for download/streaming.

Subscription Notes:

  • You can subscribe through iTunes here:
  • You can use this link to subscribe with any other feed based service:
  • or you can right-click here to download it.
  • or you can stream this episode below.
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Show Notes:

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The Book

Much of this section of the book came from experiences that I had in, first, getting my Melodic Patterns book written and then, secondly, getting the book in a month project off of the ground.

I’m using that book as a case study, but I believe that the steps behind it help form a reasonable approach to working on any large project that’s unfamiliar (or largely unfamiliar) to you.

The steps to follow:

I made a reference to various pieces of advice.  The overall categories of this are:

  • Build off of past experiences (or go with what you know)

  • Whenever possible start with the heavy lifting

  • Beware of the rope swing

  • Be realistic about what you can do

  • Break up overwhelming things into small chunks

  • Contortion doesn’t hurt if you’re limber

  • Projects have a tendency to run wild on their own – so plan on constantly monitoring their growth

  • Be prepared to go a lot of it on your own

  • Be ready to make a lot of mistakes

  • Be ready to improvise because you can’t plan for everything

  • Have a deadline and/or know when you’re done

  • You really can’t do it alone

    Here are a few specifics related to the above:

Beware of the rope swing
The advice I gave for this was a little too vague so here’s a qualifier.  It’s all about balance.  If you jump into something with no research, knowledge or plan, it will generally go badly.  If you put too much energy into research, you may face paralysis in actually acting.

Deadlines
I’d write more about this but I’ve already written on it here.

That’s it for now!

As always, I hope this helps you with your own goals.

See you soon and thanks again for listening/reading!

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Guit-A-Grip Podcast #13 – New Book “Excerpt” #2

Hello everyone!

Episode #13

Guit-A-Grip podcast episode #13 “Nothing Ever Got Done With An Excuse Excerpt #2″ is out and available for download/streaming.

Subscription Notes:

  • You can subscribe through iTunes here:
  • You can use this link to subscribe with any other feed based service:
  • or you can right-click here to download it.
  • or you can stream this episode below.
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Show Notes

The Podcast and the liberal use of the term “Excerpt”

Part of working in a format like this is being able to review things that you wrote a while ago and seeing how they shake out in a conversational manner.  That means that when I’m reading the book I’m editing the text in my head to prevent really awkward (or wrong things from being said.  It also makes for some stilted moments, but the good news it that it tightens up both the podcast and the book in the process.

I’ll talk more about why I do this in the future but (editing this down from a lumbering 23 minutes) I’m hoping to convince you that there is a method to my madness (or vice-versa).

The steps to follow:

Just to recap, these are the steps I reference in the podcast (I skipped a few of them on the audio!!!)  Good thing it’s an edit!

How to manage a project in a few broad strokes

  • Have a clear vision of what you want to do (set quantifiable goals).
  • Align perception with reality and create priorities (in other words make an honest assessment of what needs to happen to reach those goals)
  • Set deadlines and benchmarks.
  • Be accountable.
  • Do daily focused work on those goals and limit distractions and obstacles in the way of achieving them.
  • Make periodic reviews to check your project’s status against the benchmarks and timeline.
  • Utilize available resources when possible/necessary.

Come prepared:

I should have taken a page from the Boy Scouts this time around and been better prepared for a podcast.  Then, perhaps, I would have had something novel like water handy and not had either a coughing fit (edited out) or the scrath voice that comes in mid-way to the podcast before I started coughing.

Related material:

Most of the observations on this site, will work in directly with the podcast posted here.  But the two links I cited specifically were:

It’s not all gold and

Podcast Episode #12

That’s it for now!

As always, I hope this helps you with your own goals.

See you soon and thanks again for listening/reading!

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Guit-A-Grip Podcast #12 – New Book Excerpt #1

Hello everyone!

The New Book?

Yep!  I have a few new books that I’m working on, and the non-guitar instructional book, Nothing Ever Got Done With An Excuse (Or a case study in how to plan projects and get things done).  is all about several large scale projects that I got done (such as releasing 4 books of 1,200 + pages of writing in 5 months of 2011/2012).

You’re Podcasting this?

Yep!  A large component of the book is accountability so there are several advantages to podcasting the bulk of the book.

  1. It builds an audience for the book.
  2. It gives me a framework (and deadlines) for editing the material.
  3. Like I said in the podcast (re: pedagogy for pay and the flamenco dance teaching model) even if the ENTIRE book was put up online, there are people that will still want a book of the material.

Episode #12

Guit-A-Grip podcast episode #12 “Nothing Ever Got Done With An Excuse Introduction And Overview Excerpt” is out and available for download/streaming.

Subscription Notes:

  • You can subscribe through iTunes here:
  • You can use this link to subscribe with any other feed based service:
  • or you can right-click here to download it.
  • or you can stream this episode below.
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Show Notes

The (other) Book

The writing book I reference in the podcast is Chris Baty’s, No Plot? No Problem!  A low-stress, high-velocity guide to writing a novel in 30 days. There are a bajillion Kindle titles for outputting an ebook quickly, but Chris’ book is the granddaddy of them in my humble opinion.

The Harvard Study:

The study I cited in the podcast was from a source that quoted,  What They Don’t Teach You in the Harvard Business School, by Mark McCormack.  Funny story, this site contends that the data is largely fabricated and based on a non-existant 1953 Yale study! (It then goes on to cite another study that came to the same conclusion).  So take that for what it’s worth because if the original study anecdote WAS fabricated – I can’t even fathom the number of people who must have cited the McCormack reference of it (or a reference to the reference) by now.

“There are only 12 notes and they take forever to learn.”

This is just a reminder.  If the new habits you’re trying to acquire are outside your comfort zone, you’ll need to review your game plan often.

The Steps to follow:

WOW!  It turns out that I was reading from an earlier draft of the book and missed a few steps!  Here’s a case where it pays to check out the website as well as the podcast.  ; )  I changed the below from first person to passive to make it more applicable to the reader.

How to manage a project in a few broad strokes

  • Have a clear vision of what you want to do (set quantifiable goals).
  • Align perception with reality and create priorities (in other words make an honest assessment of what needs to happen to reach those goals)
  • Set deadlines and benchmarks.
  • Be accountable.
  • Do daily focused work on those goals and limit distractions and obstacles in the way of achieving them.
  • Make periodic reviews to check your project’s status against the benchmarks and timeline.
  • Utilize available resources when possible/necessary.

That’s it for now!

See you soon and thanks again for listening/reading!

-SC

 

Update from Upstate

Hey everyone,

A few quick things from the wild woods of Upstate NY.

Guit-A-Grip

I should mention that there’s a recent post and a new podcast up on guit-a-grip that may interest you if you have any interest in project management or motivational aspects of guitar playing.

Guitar-Muse

Okay…projects on tap for Guitar-Muse I hope we can get out before the end of the year:

  • Pentatonic Extraction Lesson (Submitted)
  • Taping Lesson (Submitted)
  • Ridgely Snow Player Profile (almost ready to go)
  • Interview w. Chris Buono (in the pipeline)
  • Review of Relentless: A Memoir (in the pipeline – short version you should check it out)
  • Review of the JamUp Pro app (in the pipeline)
  • Interviews with several people including Daren Burns and Fernando Vigueras
  • Possible cool gear reviews in the pipeline
  • Other lessons and player profiles

I have a steady stream of things going out to them, and hopefully we can get them up in a consistent manner!

Acoustic Project

Boy, I’ve been having the hardest time getting players for the Shakti-ish / Balkan-ish / Middle Eastern-ish / ish-ish acoustic project that I’ve been trying to pull together!  That in and of itself isn’t a shock, but what IS surprising is that  I’ve never had a project that had so much interest, and then kept falling apart at the moment of – “sounds good – let’s get together to play”.

The flake out factor almost as bad as LA in that respect. ; )

If you happen to be in upstate NY here’s the posting, and know a violinist or a guitarist who wants to show up to play, please pass that along!

At any rate, I’ve met some good people that hopefully something can come from and in the meantime, I guess I’ll keep plugging away at it and in the meantime just get a solo acoustic set together and try to make some headway there.

Electrics ‘R Us

There are very real threats of me going to Boston to see John Harper of FnH to pick up some guitars that are waiting there for me.  In the electric realm, I’m still trying to figure out how to get the Rough Hewn material signed off on, and working on pulling together a new remote project with some long-time collaborators/co-conspirators of mine and will feature a lot of 12-tone ideas.

Again we’ll see what happens.

(Another?) Book

Oh, and a lot of work has gone into the forthcoming  Pentatonic Extraction book thus far.  I don’t have an ETA, but it’s going to be cool!  There should be a lesson based on that material coming out for Guitar-Muse.

In other book related news, as a precursor to getting it out the door – If you get a chance, to check it out the new podcasts on Guit-A-Grip will feature a serialization  of my project management book, Nothing ever got done with an excuse  to help people get their projects off the ground.

That’s it for now!  As always, thanks for reading!

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Guit-A-Grip Episode #11 – “Deeper and Deeper”

Hello everyone!

The Return Of The Podcasts?!?

So I took some time off from podcasting to evaluate the podcasts and re-assess.  The original idea of the podcasts was to bring people outside of what I normally do into my work, but it appears to just siphon traffic from guitarchitecture.org.

I’m re-thinking the purpose of the site with that in mind, and I’ve committed to podcasting  here at least until the end of the year while I refine the focus of the podcasts and see what happens.

In the meantime…

Episode #11

Guit-A-Grip podcast episode #11 “Deeper and Deeper” is out and available for download/streaming.

Subscription Notes:

  • You can subscribe through iTunes here:
  • You can use this link to subscribe with any other feed based service:
  • or you can right-click here to download it.
  • or you can stream this episode below.
.

Show Notes

This is a short podcast, so I’ll just fill in a few points.

Deeper and Deeper:

This was the name of a track of a band called The FIXX that was hugely influential on me.  When I got their Reach The Beach album, I played it so many times that the vinyl grew thin.  While I was listening to it, I was listening deeply to how the guitar parts would drive some tunes and just lay back and sit in the pocket on other tunes.  Jamie West-Oram, their guitarist, would become a really big influence on me as he made me realize the concept of playing a supporting role in a band.  Knowing where where slide, keyboard line and vocal inflection was on the record came from deep listening and changed how I viewed my own roles in playing with other people.

I’ll talk about this more in a future podcast, but when people smile that nonsensical smug guru smile and say things like, “the answer lies within” it tells me that they only understand part of the equation.

Ultimately, only you can provide your own answers, but you’re never going to come up with intelligent answers if you’ve never investigated anyone else’s solutions but your own.  People left to their own devices with no external input of any kind typically don’t become Buddha, they become dull and dim-witted and develop “facts” based on little more than observation.  Babies don’t come out of the womb fully formed.  They have to be exposed to language (i.e. copy language) to master it and ultimately come up with their own original ideas.

Going deep into something and loosing yourself into it, can be a way to go deeper into yourself if you learn lessons from the process or gain insights from what’s happening.

Repetition:

“There are only 12 notes and they take forever to learn.”

I think that a good philosophy has to have simple truths at it’s core in order to be actionable (and thus be a philosophy).  My guitar system, GuitArchitecture, is based on a handful of modular approaches that can be adapted to a variety of formats.  My philosophy is the same.  It’s based on a handful of ideas that I’ll repeat here over and over.

And I do that because some of them will take forever to learn.

In this process, I’m always falling back into old habits – the difference is that I can now usually identify what’s happening and I just don’t stay in those places for as long as I used to.

Music is about the destination and the process.  I wrote this blog, and podcast and teach because I’ve been fortunate enough to make a vast number of mistakes (large and small) and hopefully I can help other people not make the same mistakes I did.

More Next Time:

As always, thanks for visiting, reading and listening.  I hope you get something out of the podcast, and if you like the series please drop a line sometime.

See you soon and thanks again!

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PS – Here are some Fixx tracks to get you through the day!
(Just skip the ads):
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Deeper and Deeper (Not much guitar in the mix but a great track)

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Saved By Zero (Check out all of the neat fills and variations Jamie throws in!)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=euBzxXFEuA4.

Beautiful Friction (Live) – Even with some issues – better than the studio version

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What God (Live) – The Chorus on this is (makes kissing fingertips motion).