But I also warn them of one thing. They will never, ever play as well at their lesson as they play at home. As the weeks go by most students accept and understand this but there’s no denying it can lead to some frustration. “I’ll show him this time!” some of them probably think. And then they make some mistakes – small ones usually – that fluster them and that’s when I have to assure them that it really and truly doesn’t matter. I’ve been teaching guitar a long time and I can tell by the way their hands move whether or not they’ve understood the concepts. The end product is not nearly as important as understanding.
Playing in front of anyone, from just a spouse or a friend all the way up to standing on a stage is a very naked experience. Its fun but it’s scary too. One thing I always try to impress on students is that there is a fundamental disconnect between the player and the listener. The player may be going along fine and suddenly a chord change isn’t quite perfect or a bad note or two is played. I’ll bet if someone hooked the player up to some medical device that measured heart and respiratory rate they would see an immediate jump in those things. Oh my God, the little man inside our head says! I totally screwed that up! The listener knows that and it proves I’m not very good! AAARRGGHH!!!
But here’s the disconnect: It is highly unlikely that the listener has a clue what a Bbm7b5 is supposed to sound like! Assuming the most basic reference point – the rhythm or beat – is not broken the listener will immediately forgive and forget any small boo-boos.
In fact, most of the time the listener is a bit of a cheerleader too. They want the player to succeed and on the most basic level there is at least a tiny bit of awe that the player is doing that very naked thing: making music. If you doubt this, go to your local bar on karaoke night and watch the performer’s friends cheering them on in spite of what might be a somewhat shaky performance.
My very first performance on guitar in front of a large number of people was during my first year of high school. I was “volunteered” to play a song during a concert by our high school chorus down at a local middle school. To say I screwed it up would be a major understatement. Making matters worse was another member of our chorus was a friend of mine who was a much better player than me and he was the one who had taught me the song! So I knew I was being listened to by not only all my peers in the chorus, a few hundred middle schoolers but also a guy who was way more advanced than me, and most likely should have been the one doing the song.
I finished the song and the kids clapped loudly but I wanted to crawl back to anonymity at the back of the bass section. Oh God, I thought, maybe I should just give this up. But then a strange and wonderful thing happened. We finished the concert and many of the younger kids and even some of my peers told me enthusiastically how much they’d enjoyed my singing and playing. Whaaaa??? Even my buddy the guitar player was nice enough to give me a compliment (although it was something of the back-handed variety if I recall… perhaps he was regretting not stepping up when asked as I was?).
I learned a couple things that day although it took me some time to thoroughly digest them. First – that someone who doesn’t play guitar is not nearly as critical as I’d suspected they would be. And – given that fact – it didn’t really matter all that much how many times I screwed up. But most importantly, a few hours later the experience actually began to feel…. good. I liked performing! And I made a vow to get better.
Since that day over 40 years ago I have played in front of just about every type of audience you can imagine, from a few uninterested bar patrons to crowds numbering in the many thousands at festivals. And everything in between. I know some days will be better than others, playing-wise. I don’t let that throw me too much anymore. In fact the biggest regrets I have are when I play as well as I can and there are very few people there to hear it. That is one of those ego things though, which I’ve talked about in this space in the past and I’m trying to eliminate.
Of course we all want to play to the best of our ability, especially if there’s anyone listening. It can be really frustrating and even depressing if all the hard work of practice doesn’t result in a perfect performance. When one of my students seems to be feeling that way I encourage them to look back: Could you play that music at all a week or a month ago? Sometimes I even urge them to record their playing, then put away the recording for a month or so. Then listen to it. I can almost guarantee that results in a more accurate way to measure progress.
So go for it. Play as well as you can but try to focus not just on what you’re doing wrong but also what you’re doing right.
Peace & good music,