Joey Tribianni – the chronically out of work actor on the TV show Friends – is the poster boy for self-defeat. He seems to find a way to bungle every part he gets. He even jeopardizes his big break – a movie part with Charlton Heston – by arriving on the first day of filming straight from a weekend fishing trip, and sneaks into Heston’s dressing room to take advantage of the only shower on the set. If you were a Friends fan, you know what I’m talking about. If not, you can see it here – the real action begins at about 1:40 minutes in.
OK, we probably don’t have that problem. But we all have times where we finish a lesson, a performance, a jam, and we realize: we just stink. Our greatest desire is to list our gear on Craigslist immediately, under an assumed name, and hope that nobody who knows us sees us again. Ever.
Guess what: this too shall pass. We will live to play again. And unless we want to live to stink again, it’s best to do a little bit of analysis and make a preemptive strike on the habits we have that work against us.
Before you do anything else, get a good night’s sleep. Have a nice breakfast. While you are enjoying the morning air, think back over your gig fatale. Did you really stink? Or were you being hard on yourself? This is not to say that you should let yourself off the hook if you did not play up to your own standards, but a little objectivity is important. Everyone makes mistakes; the important thing is how you handle those mistakes. Did your audience appreciate and enjoy your music? Or did you go down in a blaze of infamy?
Assuming that you did slowly self-destruct on stage, here are some things to consider:
Was your program appropriate to the audience, the setting, and your skills? Did you plan ahead and prepare a program that fit the venue and was within your capabilities? It’s important to have a command of the music; the better you know your repertoire, the better you’ll be able to decide when to fudge and leave out a note or two, or when to “go for it” when calamity (like a wrong note) happens. It’s best not to be too ambitious. Premiere your new pieces in low stakes settings – busking, or in front of your friends and colleagues – so that if nerves flare up, you can learn to handle them before your biggest events.
Did your nerves get in the way? We have all heard about beta blockers, both in prescription form and in their natural state (streaming audio). These approaches are not without controversy, so let’s just move on. Nerves can affect you physically, with your breath and tempo. It’s easy to dive into a piece before you’re fully ready to begin, but when you are on stage, you don’t experience time the same way the audience does. Taking a second or two to breathe deeply and center yourself is worth it, and does not seem as long to them as it does to you. Mentally, nerves can get in the way of memory, or they can also send those little self-defeating thoughts to you at the worst time. Remember, your thoughts are only your thoughts. They’re not real, and they can disappear as quickly as they come, if you let them.
Your audience is on your side. They are predisposed to make allowances for errors, because they want to have a good time. The way you can give them a good time is to remember that it’s not about you. It’s about the music and the emotions that the music invokes in you. You are there only to communicate those emotions to the audience, to share what you know to be true, so that they can experience it too.
Finally, did you do your best? Preparation, as mentioned before, is crucial. But so is intent. If your goal is to get people to pay attention to you, then playing poorly will do a much better job of it than taking the trouble to prepare and play well. Easier yet, get a YouTube channel and stay home, videotaping your cat. Even if you play well, it can serve you well to examine your intent at every performance.
Keep your goals and intent true. It’s not about we performers, it’s about the music – the total experience. If we stink, some self-examination can turn things around. Instead of stinking, we can come out smelling like a rose – and somebody might even throw one on stage for us.