He did mention an interesting phenomenon recently and it’s worth exploring. He said he did an open mic and it went very well from a performance perspective but did another only a few days later which wasn’t quite as good.
Why does this happen? And if you’ve never performed in front of people with any regularity, you can be sure it does and WILL happen. It doesn’t matter whether you’re an enthusiastic amateur player, a seasoned professional or even a world famous star. Everyone experiences good and bad performances. I certainly do.
The thing is, if there was some way to predict when this was going to happen (the worst ones AND the best ones I mean) it seems like there would be some way to avoid or look forward to the experience. Sadly, to some degree anyway, I really don’t think that’s possible. Even obvious indicators like personal issues interfering with your musical train of thought may or may not affect your performance. Some people let issues affect them; some find solace in immersing themselves in the playing experience with great results. Sometimes you can feel just too good, too confident going into a performance and speaking from personal experience that can be a disaster if you’re not good shaking off unexpected flubs.
It should go without saying but I’ll say it anyway. Being prepared is absolutely vital. For example, I’ve always been amazed and maybe a bit envious of performers who can take the stage with only the vaguest idea of their set list. Some can do that, most can’t and shouldn’t. Have a set list prepared and even if you feel like straying from it from time to time, it gives you a foundation to build upon.
Another thing that amazes me are musicians who can show up minutes before they are scheduled to play, do a quick set-up and then dive right in. I am so not that person. I always arrive well ahead of time to make sure my equipment is operating as it should but mostly to survey the listening audience. This tends to give me confidence in what I’ve prepared or makes me realize some tweaking of that set list may be in order. Then I like to relax for a few minutes, talk with people, have a drink of some sort (usually coffee or water, my days of sucking down a couple beers before I play are long gone!) and relax.
So let’s say you do all those things and begin playing. The first song may be easy as pie or it may be a bit of a struggle. One little trick I’ve been employing for a few years is nothing more than moving my picking hand back toward the bridge a bit. What? Well, if my nerves are a bit on edge I’ve found that moving back just an inch or so where the bridge offers more resistance to the movement of the strings seems to mitigate any trembling that I have in that hand. Strange, eh? Give it a try if you find that your first song is difficult to control with your picking hand. Works for strumming, too.
Now you’re into the set a few songs. You’ve found a bit of a groove and your confidence is building. Then, from out of nowhere, someone walks up and wants to start a conversation – while you’re playing! Unless you’ve played out for a long, long time this is guaranteed to destroy that groove and even your confidence. Your choices are: ignore the person (but do smile, they shouldget the hint) or go into something akin to auto-pilot. That is what I do. I just keep playing and repeating a section of the song that doesn’t require my total attention. However, there are times when there is really nothing to do but stop and allow the conversation to commence. For a lot of years I thought this was unacceptable, “the show must go on” and all that. But then I came to realize that in a casual setting like a restaurant or bar where only a portion of the audience may be paying attention to what I was playing, they could see why I was stopping and didn’t have a problem with it. Conversation ends and I begin the song again from the beginning. No harm, no foul. I might even play it better the second time.
The thing that is most baffling to me in the vagaries of performance is this. There are times when I play my average best, which will certainly include a few “clams” as my brother the trumpet player calls them, but the audience seems to really enjoy the music and will often tell me so. That feels good, for sure.
But then there are the times when I play just about flawlessly and…. No one notices. Experience over the many decades I’ve been performing has taught me to let that go, just like I can (usually!) let go of a less than stellar performance.
So I guess that for most of us, regardless of our level of experience, there is just no way to predict what’s going to happen! Any performer who understands this and is prepared to give the best they can will do just fine, most of the time.
In closing today, I am going to break the rule I mentioned at the beginning.
We are very proud here in Falmouth, Massachusetts that Katherine Lee Bates grew up here. She was the author of “America the Beautiful.” One of our greatest physical attributes in Falmouth is the Shining Sea Bikeway, a beautiful stretch of paved surface (an abandoned railroad way) that runs from North Falmouth to Woods Hole. It traverses cranberry bogs, forests, salt marshes and follows Vineyard Sound along the coast, the “shining sea” that Ms. Bates was surely thinking of when she wrote those lyrics. I highly recommend it if you ever visit Falmouth.
There’s another line in that song that today has more significance than ever.
“And crown thy good with brotherhood….”
In these troubled times I can’t think of a better way to truly “make America great.” Because along with being “great” we should never forget to be good.
Peace & good music,