The Gig As A Teaching Tool And Evading The Black Hole

My relationship to gigging has changed a lot over the years.

For many years, a gig to me was only as good as what I played.   If I didn’t feel I played well, then the gig was bad and if I played well then the gig was good.   During that time, at best, I didn’t feel that I played any gig particularly well.

Mostly I would just beat myself up after a gig and disparage what I did as a musician and as a human being.  Because (the faulty logic went) if the gig sucked then I sucked at the gig and if I sucked at a gig then I must suck as a guitarist – and how could that be after all the time put into it to not suck?

That’s an amateur view of gigging.  It took me a while to realize  I was using bad logic and taking the wrong lesson away from what I was doing.  (You can read another post of mine here that goes into much more depth about the amateur mindset and how to discard it.)

All guitarists still play mediocre gigs….it’s just that great guitarists play them less often, and a great guitarist’s mediocre gig is still at a higher level than a great gig played by an okay guitarist.   Additionally, professional guitarists disconnect from gigs when they’re done.  They might struggle after the gig, but they let things go because there’s another gig on the horizon to focus on.

But mostly what changed my relationship to gigging was the audience.

I started realizing that my own self assessment was really secondary to what the audience got out of it.  If I didn’t care about what the audience got out of it, then there was no point in playing to an audience.

The weird thing is that the audience got VERY different takes on the gigs than I typically did.  The gigs I hated were gigs the audience members often dug… and he gigs I liked?  By and large the audience was apathetic.  Eventually – between the audiences assessment and my assessment – I learned how to really gauge the temperature of the gig and how it really went.

The real question here is – Why does that matter?

If you’re asking yourself that question to puff yourself up and convince yourself how great you are, being able to gauge the success of the gig is not helpful at all.

For me, the importance is that being able to gauge what happened more objectively is an opportunity to learn.  What worked?  What didn’t work?  What should I do again?  For the things that didn’t work, how can I prepare myself better to get a better result?  As George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

Case in Point:

Last night I played a benefit gig at a place called the Linda in Albany, NY.  It’s the performance arts studio for WAMC radio and a very cool venue with a great staff and cool eclectic booking.  We were playing a benefit for WAMC with three other bands.  Our soundcheck was scheduled for 5.  Doors were at 7.  We got there early but assumed we’d probably soundcheck at 5:30.

The Linda had put a new sound system in that day that they were trying out so the staff had already been on hand for most of the day.  Two of the groups were going to use a backline (i.e. have guitar and bass amps and a common drum kit for use by multiple bands) to save time both in sound checking and switching between bands.  We got there around 4:45 and soundcheck was running behind.  The two bands before us had a number of things that had to be checked and we ended up loading our stuff onstage to soundcheck at about 6:45.

So the event began with a little stress but, truth be told, most events work on a “Wait – wait – now Hurry UP!” cycle.  We got our things on stage and worked out a few things with percussion mics and ended up running a few bars of a few tunes.  The house sound is LOUD and the monitors in front of me are on the brink of feeding back.  The tone I hear coming back at me is MEGA treble so I try to adjust with my own eq but its still jarring to me and LOUD.    I ask to be pulled out of the monitor directly in front of me as  I figured I could just use the house sound as a monitor if need be.

We left the stage around 7:10 – feeling really bad that this essentially screwed Bryan Thomas, the opening act, out of any kind of a proper soundcheck.  We talked to him as he was setting up and he said he can work around it (and he certainly did – Bryan pulled off a really cool loop based solo singer set)!  We then walked over to Van’s (a great Vietnamese restaurant in Albany) to get some pho before the set, and literally get back for the last tune of Bryan’s set and then have to load on.

While we were gone, unbeknownst to me, the overall house sound system volume dropped.  We got on stage, said a quick introduction and launched into the first tune.

At this point I couldn’t really hear myself so I started picking harder.  A lot harder.  Like bluegrass hard.  It was way too much excess tension and my hands were not responding the way I wanted them to.  We get through the piece.

The audience applauds and I introduce the next tune.  We only have a 1/2 hour and have already cut one tune from the set to get in under the time limit so (in a bad judgement call) I’m more focused on trying to get through the gig than taking the 30 seconds it would take to fix the problem.  Tune 2 – my hands are not responding at all the way I want them to.  I’m playing and they’re losing synchronization.  At this point, I become mindful of the fact that in addition to being too tense that I also have some adrenaline going and that’s pushing me beyond what I should be doing – hence the lack of synchronization.  I take micro breaks where I can to make sure I can pull off the unison line at the end.  We get through it.  The audience applauds again.  I take a breath and address the issues.

I try to joke with the audience to build rapport and keep them engaged.  I ask for some of myself back into the monitor.  Tune 3 is a slower tune.  I scale back and try to play less and continue to rest my hands where I can.  I try to balance being engaged with the music with doing what I need to do to technically get through the gig.  We get through the rest of the set.  It’s not one of my better performances – but it’s the best I can do in the situation.

I’m bummed because I know that this performance is being recorded for a future broadcast and I’m not super psyched about all of my mistakes being experienced over and over again but on the plus side, the audience is awesome.  They’re kind and super receptive, really giving us something back and really digging what what we’re doing.  The Linda staff is great and super supportive and John Chiara did a great job We make some new fans and some new friends.

I don’t play particularly well – but it’s a good gig for us.

This is one of those situations where my problem easily could have easily trainwrecked the gig.  You ever have that moment where you wake up and something bad happens when you get out of bed and that sets off a whole series of chain reactions in place (like tripping over a laundry hamper, cutting yourself shaving and/or burning yourself with spilled coffee)?  I call that entering the black hole.  Once you get sucked into a bad moment, it’s easy to get caught in the inertia of that energy (the  gravitational pull of the black hole) and just have compounding errors that spiral out of control.

There are two ways out of the black hole – and both involve mindfulness.

1.  Don’t go into the black hole.  If things go wrong, be aware of what’s happening and make mild adjustments and try to stay on course.

2.  If mistakes are compounding – take a breath.  Observe what is going on and make necessary corrections to get back on track.

This doesn’t come naturally.  You can’t learn it in a practice room by yourself.  The only way to be able to do this mid-gig is through a lot of practice and (un)fortunately, I’ve had numerous opportunities to practice this in a live setting.

Gigs are valuable opportunities to gain insights about what you do and the best ways to do it and (without getting to wu-wu here) no matter how many gigs you play, you will always learn something if you’re ready for the lesson.

As always, I hope this helps!

Thanks for reading.

-SC

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