I was out playing (with Stephen Nurse, again – you’d be forgiven to thinking this was my duo-of-the-year project. It’s all lots of fun for me, if no doubt little confusing for everyone else! Hopefully it lasts longer than a year.) on a Monday night in Hammersmith and I was reflecting shortly afterwards on how relaxed I’ve become about making mistakes when performing. Stephen and I do a version of Scarborough Fair that is always a complete stab in the dark – partly because we don’t do much in the way of rehearsal, and partly because we have different ideas about the rhythm and they just haven’t settled on this particular song yet. It’s a magical song and one that I would hate to overplay – in 6 months I think that’s the second time we’ve played it.
I think back on when I started playing live – just over 3 years ago – and how I would rehearse each song excessively and had a very determined idea in my head of what “right” sounded liked when it came to performing all the songs. And something would ALWAYS go “wrong” (hint: something always does!) with a performance, a missed lyric, a dropped chord, an entire verse forgotten or even in the early days a complete lapse in memory. I could never imagine being one of those people who looked “perfect” on stage as if they never dropped a note, and were always professional and on top of things – effortless. And I come from a classical background, where the music is known in detail by so many, and someone seems to always be there to lay claim to every note you miss.
Fast forward to now and I know that with some songs you do just reach a point, after a certain amount of play, where you can usually guarantee a fairly consistent rendering of a song time after time. Muscle memory and the physical confidence of coordinating yourself in the right way enough to relax and assume it will come – it usually does. But along the way I learned two things that fundamentally changed my view of music.
The first thing was a rule I made for myself – that I only had to be 80% right. When it comes to playing your own songs for an audience that’s probably never heard them before, you can pretty much guarantee that no-one’s going to notice the first 20% of what you might yourself class as “mistakes” – because no-one knows what’s supposed to come next. And even if you do mess up, hey! it’s live – it’s highly unlikely anyone is going to hold it against you! People are much more likely to be aware of your so-called screw-ups if you act like you screwed up.
The second thing I learned about was simply this: improvisation. Not having had any jazz or improvised/jamming background, it was a revelation to me that there was music that was not only not perfect, it wasn’t even planned. Or rehearsed. That perfect strangers could stand up together and make amazing music. That I could stand up and roll with the evolution of notes and phrases – I may well never be a pro at it like Stephen but I can at least figure out how to turn a near-miss into something that sounds tuneful. There’s that Miles Davis quote - “It’s not the note you play that’s the wrong note – it’s the note you play afterwards that makes it right or wrong.” Which is maybe a lesson for life in general too – it’s not the mistake that matters, but how you deal with it.
Anyway, here we are working it out as we go along, which seems to be a theme this year...