Since then I’ve noticed this is a common occurrence with some local bands and single performers. The reason is quite simple. It’s a combination of the joy and energy of performing – and nerves. It’s a fine thing to convey your love of your music with energy and exuberance is always a good thing but ultimately that can and usually does lead to mistakes, ones that perhaps were never made in rehearsal.
I was discussing this later on after the band had disbanded with the wonderful singer/songwriter Jonathan Edwards. I was playing lead guitar with a local woman singer at that time and we were opening for Jonathan at a club here on Cape Cod. We were all sitting together at the restaurant attached to the club before the performance and I commented to Jonathan how much I loved his live show, in which he performs with great joy and an amazing amount of energy. He thought about that for a few seconds and then said, yeah, I try to keep it upbeat because that is what the audience expects but you know what? I have to be really, really careful to not play the songs too fast because if I do I’ll screw them up, for sure.
This was quite a statement by such a veteran and well respected performer who no doubt had played those songs hundreds if not thousands of times.
So you know what I do? he asked. I remind myself just before I go on stage to play every song about 5% slower than I know I can. No one would ever notice but what that does for me is give me a level of confidence that I’m NOT going to screw up. And usually, I don’t.
Since that evening over 15 years ago I’ve kept his advice in mind every time I play in front of anyone. The benefit is immediate and I’m sure I mess up way less than I would by playing songs at the absolute maximum speed I can. Yes, I still make mistakes but I’m absolutely sure I don’t make as many as I might. And what’s more, it’s easy to recover from a mistake, which is certainly not the case if I’m maxing out when even a simple mistake can easily lead to a complete crash-and-burn.
But how about the other extreme? Some performers will slow down in the middle of songs. Before the rock band I mentioned earlier I played in another band that had a drummer who, no matter what speed a song was supposed to be, would gradually but inexorably slow down to the one beat he was comfortable with. This may have had something to do with the adult beverages he consumed before and during practices, but I digress…. In any case, there is nothing that will cause an audience to lose interest faster than a song that begins to lag. This is why I always make an effort to tap my foot when I’m performing and even while practicing. Foot tapping “internalizes” the beat so you are always aware of it.
I absolutely believe that rhythm – keep a steady beat – is the most taken for granted musical concept of them all. Everyone has rhythm, right? Well, yes. But if it isn’t steady and consistent a performer sounds amateurish at best. So, take a deep breath before you perform, even if it’s just for your friends, and count out a measure or so in mind, at about 5% slower speed than you know you can play the song. And tap your foot! Regardless of the speed or complexity of the music you will sound 100% in control.
Peace & good music,