It's OK to mess up onstage

Nobody is perfect. Even if you're an excellent musician and have been playing in front of people for years you will mess up. Whether your mistake is subtle enough to be hidden with a straight face or painfully obvious to anyone but the deaf, the best part of messing up is you can learn from your experiences and do better next time. Throughout my musical career I've endured many cringeworthy experiences. Below is an example of one such error that happened recently and a list of things I learned from the experience.

Playing poorly for the wrong audience

When I was in college, I took a jazz improvisation class which proved to be one of the most fun courses during my college career. I had the opportunity to play with many musicians who were performing at the professional or semi-professional level. During this time, I learned so much about my place as a bassist in the band, as well as how to communicate with an audience through the band's dynamics. Students learned various jazz tunes throughout the term and formed groups with classmates to perform twice in a live, gig-like setting. Our gigs consisted of a dress rehearsal at a coffee shop, and a main event in a theater.

One of the musical philosophies that stuck out to me was that "any genre can be jazz" if performed correctly. The idea was that instead of playing a bossa, swing, or funk tune, you could also steal your favorite country or metal track and structure the song using a jazz-like paradigm. This could mean passing a solo to different members of the band for a set number of bars or just vamping on a riff for a while, reading the audience and playing what they want to hear next.

Unfortunately that last part was lost on me... as great as it may sound in theory, reading the audience can be tricky to get right in practice. In any case, I was ambitious to get started and volunteered to co-lead a band with a very talented girl who was a saxophonist and a singer. We started brainstorming which of our favorite songs we would cover and came up with a list that looked like this:

Great list, right? Well, not exactly...

There were a few problems with our selection. Unbeknownst to me, our audience would consist of an older demographic who was expecting to hear some mellow, traditional jazz tunes. This set us up for failure right away. We also didn't have enough time to practice the songs as a team due to scheduling conflicts (students are very busy people, you know) so we had some pretty rough patches in the harder sections. To make matters worse, our keyboardist was involved in a bike accident and was unable to participate for the remainder of the term (he's fine now, by the way). Nevertheless, we decided to forge ahead.


When the dress rehearsal rolled around, we headed off to the coffee shop with our gear. Problems started early when we had some issues with the EQ during sound check; we couldn't get the lead guitarist to both hear himself and be quiet enough to suit the small room. Once we dialed everything in to be somewhat tolerable, our performance began.

As far as the actual performance, I don't even know where to begin. Band members got lost, we played notes that were completely wrong, our lead guitarist turned up way too loud since he couldn't hear himself, and consistent tempo was nonexistent. During the keyboard arpeggios in Knights of Cydonia I decided to be a hero and steal the keyboardist's part, since someone had to take over and it sat squarely within the range of the bass guitar. Oh what a bad idea that was. I had not practiced it nearly enough and missed most of the notes due to the pressure I felt from the situation.

The poor elderly people in the audience stood there with disgusted looks on their faces and fingers in their ears. After the second song, the instructor came up and told us we were done. If we had been playing Guitar Hero or Rock Band, we would've failed both songs. Yep, it was that bad.

Fortunately for my self esteem, the story doesn't end there. We got our act together for the main event and put on a respectable show. To clean things up, we threw in a rendition of Take Five with a twist: the last measure of every phrase had six beats instead of five. We also worked in a slick transition from Take Five to Can't Stop, which we played in the same key. We ditched Knights of Cydonia, our most disastrous tune, so we could be as polished as possible. In the end, everything went smoothly if not perfectly, and we had a blast.

Lessons learned

Our whole group learned a lot from this experience, but here were my takeaways:

I want to end on an encouraging note here. Chances are you've never messed up this bad in front of an audience. Perhaps you have. In any case, don't let the experience prevent you from trying again. Whatever you do, be it music or something else, keep working at it until you get it right. When things go sideways, dust yourself off and use the experience to your advantage; now you know what not to do and won't make the same mistake twice.