[This post was written by guest-contributor Richard Lee Jackson, drummer and co-producer of the independent rockband Enation. Their music has been featured on ‘One Tree Hill,’ ‘General Hospital,’ and MTV.com.]
As a musician, playing live in front of an audience is one of the most thrilling parts of being an artist. To feel the immediate connection and response from your fans, or even the challenge of ‘winning over the crowd’ is oftentimes exhilarating.
Weeks or months have gone into preparing for your shows. Sometimes you’ve rehearsed or gigged so much that it seems like the songs can play themselves. On stage everything is falling into place, and the atmosphere is electric with possibility.
But what about those moments or gigs when things don’t go the way you’d hoped? What about the major mistakes you make on stage that almost seem to shut down the song, or even worse, the entire show?
If you’re a musician who plays live gigs, chances are you’ve made at least a couple of gaffes on stage at some point in your life. Some mistakes have probably been worse than others. As the drummer in the rock band Enation I have had my fair share over the years.
For instance, early on when I’d really get rockin’ I’d sometimes accidentally lose grip of one of my sticks and watch it fly away from me like a wounded duck into the audience (or somewhere over my head). Not the desired effect I wanted for the song or the show. I would then have to try and make my (still formulating) drum brain tell my independently-operating-somewhat-autonomous-empty-hand to grab another stick from my dangling drum bag attached to my floor Tom — most of the time quite clumsily — all while trying to keep the hemorrhaging beat alive with my kick drum and singular stick. This was usually at a point in the song that needed both sticks and the crescendo would be, well, less than climactic.
This didn’t happen just once. This seemed to happen once per show.
There were other shows where the whole band felt awkward. Even though we were playing on click it just seemed terribly slow, and the crowd, it seemed to us on stage, felt about as interested as a group of high school students at a ‘Taxes 101 Seminar’.
Even though years of practice and gigs have rid most of those rookie mistakes, even now with much more experience under my belt, I still occasionally screw up. (Ugh. I want every gig to be a flawless one!)
Just recently one such blunder happened to me. It was one of the biggest gigs of our lives. Our band had spent months preparing for a Nashville showcase, the kind of gig where big shots in the music industry come out and see you play as part of the process to decide if you’re a band they want to throw their industry muscle behind. The room wasn’t filled with Enation fans – these were fairly jaded music executives who were there to, essentially, judge you. I had done quite a bit of groundwork in setting the showcase up, so my heart and mind were full of the months of hard work getting to this point. All of the planning, rehearsals, emails, phone calls, and travel came down to this moment.
As we started to play I could feel nerves kick in. If you ever get them you know what I mean. Not so fun. It’s that feeling when your whole body tightens up and your mind starts to race. Those nerves usually aren’t there for me at gigs now, but this time they were — and it took a lot more concentration to play well. I started thinking about lots of things; what the execs thought of us, worrying about making a mistake, wishing my mix was different in my ears – and then I thought about how I shouldn’t be thinking about any of those things and that I should just focus on playing the song well and enjoy the moment. Stop thinking about thinking is a hard thing to do.
On our second song the nerves kinda got the best of me. Just before the guitar solo I completely botched one of my drum fills. Something in my brain froze and it was like I forgot what I was supposed to play — I almost stopped playing during the fill it was so awkward.
I wasn’t sure how bad it sounded to my band or to the audience, but to me it felt as if I was a little kid standing in the front of my classroom, naked, with everyone staring at me. (Okay, I don’t really know what that would be like but when I imagine that scenario I think it’d feel very similar.) Then my thoughts went to ‘I wonder if anyone is going to leave now. They might assume we’re not ready. This makes us look terrible. I’ve just botched the biggest gig of our life.’
Experience has taught me no matter what is happening during a show on stage, you have to play through it. If you have a defeatist mentality the audience will pick up on that. If you play through it, there are still chances for brilliance.
Laker legend Kobe Bryant has a great philosophy about his failures. He has said that if he misses a shot he doesn’t think about it. He thinks about making the next one. And if he misses the next one, then he thinks about how he’s really due to make the next one. I think that’s a great way to look at our live concerts and songs.
After the showcase I put on a good front… but honestly I was disappointed in myself. It’s hard for me to feel like a big moment wasn’t performed at the top of my game.
However, after the showcase what our band got was incredibly positive feedback. We had follow-up meetings and great interest from many of the executives and companies who came to see us play. No one said anything remotely close to what my thoughts were like on stage. No one said, ‘Well, we really love your band, but your drummer needs some work.’ It was, in the grand scheme of things, not that big of a deal.
Often times, (miraculously, thankfully!) our mistakes aren’t registered by our audience. And even when they are, most audiences are forgiving.
My mistake was bigger to me than to anyone else.
It was also comforting to think about some of my favorite bands and knowing they, too, have made obvious mistakes at their gigs; and not just ‘early on’ in their careers. Take U2 for example — arguably the biggest (and arguably the best) band of their generation. On more than one of their live concert DVD’s the Edge, one of the best guitar players in the world, has made obvious mistakes. Just flat out hit the wrong note. One of the shows he grinned and kept playing, as if to say, ‘Oh well, it happens.’ But at a different concert when the band made a pretty big mistake, he threw his guitar down in anger and yelled at Larry Mullen, Jr., their drummer.
I understand both reactions.
Most likely our audience will react to obvious mistakes the way we do. If we tense up and are upset by them, they’ll notice that and see it as a big deal. If we grin and laugh it off, or play through it with that much more conviction, they’ll take their cue from us on stage and continue to be engaged and have fun with us.
Everyone makes mistakes, in life, as well as on stage. If we allow our mistakes to define us we will get lost looking back. If however we allow our mistakes to be the catalyst for improvement through grace, then we will be focused on the brilliance that lies ahead.
But we need to play through it to get there.
[Oops image from Shutterstock.]
Richard Lee loves music, writing, and hoverboards — and can’t wait to buy one when they’re finally on the market in 2015.
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