Letting Go of Our Perfectionist Tendencies
I remember my first time playing in front of a crowd like it was yesterday. I was 16 and had recently started a cover band with my brother on drums and a few neighborhood friends.
We all caught the metal bug and wanted nothing else but to play Metallica and Pantera covers all day long. The other guitarist in the band told us about an opportunity to play a show at his high school. After some nervous contemplation, we all decided to jump on board with the idea.
In hindsight, we played a decent show, considering we were inexperienced and still learning our way around our instruments. But to this day, there's one memory from that show that sticks out like a sore thumb. I made a mistake during my guitar solo. I'm sure you all know the feeling. It was actually the only original song we had written and decided to play at the show. It was my moment to shine, and I screwed up.
Or maybe not ... A few days later when I watched the video of the show, something interesting occurred to me: I didn't notice the mistake. In my mind, the blunder was so obvious that I assumed it would be obvious to everyone else. But I had to re-watch the video a couple of times to actually notice the error I had made. The irony is that the only thing in the video that appears obvious is when I shake my head in frustration after the mistake allegedly happened.
This brings me to the main point of this article—how to effectively let go of our mistakes, especially during a performance. I think it's safe to say most musicians are perfectionists by nature, which we all hope will produce rewarding results. A majority of the time, our hard work does pay off, and we begin to see noticeable improvements during our formative years. We start to play faster and more accurately with the good old metronome day by day.
However, a small byproduct of this strong work ethic begins to grow inside our psyche, which, if unchecked, can spread like a cancer: the tendency to obsess over every last detail. The line between proficiency and perfection is sometimes blurred, to the detriment of the player. We are solely focused on improving our miscues from the prior day's practice that we don't stop to realize just how far along we've come. When I would play along to songs in my room, I had a habit of replaying a song from the beginning if I screwed up just one section. Needless to say, there's no "replay" button when you're playing live. Instead, I started getting in the habit of owning my mistakes.
This can be an invaluable step forward in your playing. Unless the mistake is catastrophic (which, if you practice effectively, should be a rare occurrence), should you really let it get to you? I don't think so, and sometimes it can be helpful to look at it from a different perspective. The road to musical perfection is an illusory one paved with good intentions. But from the cracks in the road that we sometimes call mistakes can come style and character. I remember watching a video diary from the late great Dimebag Darrell (from the DimeVision DVD) where he was describing how uncomfortable he felt when he listened to one of his guitar solos that became the final take on an album.
The look on his face said it all; it was cringe-worthy for him to relive this part of the solo (I think it involved one of his "squeals" not living up to his expectations). But one of his friends always pointed out the same section and told Dime it was his favorite part of the solo. If you watch enough YouTube videos, I'm sure you can find tons of live footage from famous bands where mistakes are made. The question is, How often do you see them shaking their head in frustration?
Perception is reality, and if you "own" your occasional slip-ups and quirks, they become non-events and barely noticeable to your audience. In fact, these imperfections help to reinforce the human aspect of your playing and can make the music sound more honest. It's like taking a test in school: If you want to get a good grade, studying (practicing your instrument) and being prepared for the material is a no-brainer. However, at the end of the day, why get all stressed out because you scored an "A-" instead of an "A" or an "A+"?
Instead of dwelling, take pride in what you have accomplished thus far in your musical journey and try not to forget that, at one point, you were completely unable to play the guitar! Even the best musicians make mistakes, but it's how you react and move forward from those setbacks that truly measure your progress.
Chris Breen is a New Jersey-based guitarist with 14 years of experience under his belt. He, along with his brother Jon (on drums) started the two-piece metal project known as SCARSIC in 2011. Due to a lack of members, Chris tracked guitars, bass and vocals for their self titled four-song demo (available on iTunes, Spotify and Rhapsody). They have recently been joined by bassist Bill Loucas and are writing new material. Chris also is part of an all-acoustic side project known as Eyes Turn Stone. Chris teaches guitar lessons as well (in person or via Skype). If you're interested in taking lessons with Chris, visit BreenMusicLessons.com for more info.