There are almost unlimited ways to screw up a song! My dad, a superb musician who decided to take up guitar after he retired put that statement a bit more colorfully. And he wasn’t prone to cursing. I see it with my students on a regular basis. No matter how well you may know a song, no matter how many times you’ve played it, danger lurks. We can practice and practice and get it right almost all the time but don’t be surprised by those unexpected turns. My own feeling (based on plenty of screw-ups!) is that – assuming you know a song pretty well – the worst moments occur when I’m on “auto-pilot” and make the mistake of listening to myself play. “AW-right!” says the little man in my head. “Sounding good today, Gene!” Crash. And. Burn. Paying attention, thinking ahead, and most of all, not being rattled when something bad happens is the key. I readily admit this is never easy.
There will be times when you’re absolutely sure you play best in the first 10 minutes or so of a practice session but then things begin going downhill. This can be hugely frustrating. The reality is probably quite different than your perception. When we begin to play we often hear the best of our efforts and this is very satisfying, as it should be. But as our session moves along those little glitches become more and more annoying. With some people they can become downright debilitating, to the point that they put the guitar down and walk away in disgust and it may take days to recover. There are couple possible solutions here. First, no matter what, get through as much of a song as you can, warts and all. Then go back and focus on the section or individual changes that are problematic. After a few minutes of doing these, try to reassemble the song. Sure, those hard parts will still be hard but your perspective will probably change. Another solution is to just put the guitar down, go for a walk, read the newspaper or have an adult beverage if that’s appropriate. Clear the hard drive, in other words. Then pick it up and try it again. For what it’s worth, my students who progress the fastest often practice multiple times a day, if only for a few minutes each time.
You’re your own worst critic. Most recreational players have no intention of performing but if there is anyone within earshot it’s easy to assume they are listening intently and maybe being critical. I can assure you, in 99% of the cases no matter what your level of playing, no one is judging you. In fact, family and friends are your cheerleaders; they want you to succeed or at least be happy with your own playing. Listeners are way more forgiving of mistakes than you might realize. If you don’t believe me, go to a karaoke session some time. While you may hear some pretty amazing performances, you will surely hear some that belong in a person’s shower and nowhere else. But regardless, the listeners are enthusiastic and admire the performer’s courage.
But what bookends with this a bit is….
You can always tell when another guitar player is listening. The sideways glances or outright staring, usually with a blank expression. This can be disconcerting to say the least! It took me many years to not get rattled by this, I must admit. Finally, I figured out that all guitarists, regardless of their age, experience or musical tastes have some sort of innate need to demonstrate some level of coolness about other guitarists they don’t know personally. Why is this? I have no idea. Does it mean anything or matter? Not at all! That staring could have any number of underlying reasons. Some may be flattering; some may be ego-driven. I’ve had many instances when a guitarist stared at me for quite a long time, never clapped or even smiled at the end of multiple songs, but then came up (still without smiling????!) and said something to the effect of how much they enjoyed my playing and put a generous tip in the tip glass. A smile, a thank you very much and “glad you enjoyed it, hope to see you again!” are appropriate responses. On the other hand, I’ve seen guitarists I vaguely know show up at gigs and walk out with a smirk after a song or two. “Let it roll on by!” sings one of my favorite singer/songwriters, Shawn Mullins. It really and truly matters not what that person thinks. You’ve got the gig and he was just sitting there. That is all that truly matters.
Reserve judgement about performers, no matter what level they may be on. Here’s another case of Gene having to learn the hard way. In my younger days I routinely dismissed certain musicians based only upon my perception of their abilities, style of music, or even really silly things like their stage presence, equipment (!) or even their physical appearance. The result has been that I missed appreciating some very fine musicians. These days, even if I don’t particularly like a certain style of music I do my best to find value in it or at least try to figure out just why it or the people performing it are popular. Then I can make an informed decision as to whether or not to explore it further. And often, that’s just what happens and I think both my playing and my horizons have expanded.
Peace & good music,