Don’t Dwell on Mistakes

A few tips for those performing in a bluegrass band.

by: David Lange

In honor of President’s Day, here are a few quotes from George Washington…. It is far better to be alone than in bad company …. It is better to offer no excuse than a bad one ….. Worry is the interest paid by those who borrow trouble….. End quotes. Thank you for those words of wisdom George.

While I was not able to find “Don’t Dwell on Your Mistakes” in quotes from George Washington, it is likely another element of his character. As the title of todays’column, this phrase will serve as a quote from me, your investigative reporter. A book could be written about not dwelling on mistakes when it comes to life. Since I am limited to a couple pages here, I’ll stick to one little aspect of life….performing. If one of your goals is to perform bluegrass, remember ……. that goal should be to perform, and have a lot of fun doing it…. not perform and make enough money to feed the family……… And speaking of Presidents, I suppose a bluegrass musician is more apt to see the picture of a President in a history book, than on a bill………

Now I would not want anyone to confuse the smoothing over of mistakes on stage with other life events that do require an acknowledgement and apology. Your handling of a mistake on stage vs. dumping half of your diet coke in someone’s lap while stumbling down a row in a crowded theater…….. might be a little different. In the theater situation, I doubt your wife or husband will be whispering to you from behind “Forget about it honey and just move on … I don’t think anyone noticed…..”. I would say it is usually a lot easier to absorb mistakes with little or no impact to the audience when playing with a band than playing solo. Either way, mistakes can have a positive impact in the long term and provide clues on what should be focused on at practice. You’ll have to play that same song next weekend and you’ll get another shot at it. If you dwell on that mistake on stage, it can only serve to break your concentration, shatter your confidence, and just snowball.

Most professional musicians I have spoken to about this subject say pretty much the same thing…… The audience doesn’t know what you’re planning to do, so they suspect that everything you do is part of the act. Play into that perception as much as you can. Members of the audience most often don’t even notice mistakes, and if they do, they are not likely to dwell on it UNLESS YOU DO. If it is just one mis-step, just keep smiling, focused, and keep playing…….. Some mistakes just cannot go un-noticed (oops, forgot the next verse….) and in those cases, admitting the mistake and making light of it usually satisfies the audience. In fact, you might be able to use this as an opportunity to inject some humor and personality into your performance. If you are playing in a band, and get lost for the entire song …… you may have to find a creative way to get through it, and the rest of the band will need to absorb it.

Occasionally I get called to fill in on bass for a band. While very talented, this band does not practice, and does not use a set list. So when I get the call, my emotions are mixed. I love playing with these guys, and have a lot of fun. But there is also some anxiety that sets in. I know I can expect instances where I am going to get lost and have to make the best of it. Not only do they play some songs I have never heard before, I believe they play some songs ….. they have never heard before. On a few occasions they have selected a song to play that I could tell from the beginning I would not be able to follow without being obviously way out of key. In those cases I stepped away and allowed them to play without the bass. From the audience perspective, it was planned that way. For the band, they knew exactly what I was doing (wink wink). Yes, one of the rules for helping to prevent mistakes when playing in that bluegrass band is to practice a lot. But even with plenty of practice, mistakes are still going to happen. A little mental preparedness, kind of like that deer that you know someday is going to run out in front of your car….. You don’t worry about it, but in the back of your mind you know that when it happens, you will have to think fast and react rationally … You may have to brake or swerve, but you do not want to loose control of the car in the process….

Before closing I wanted to mention that last night, I attended a performance by “The Banner Mountain Boys” at the Downtown Grill in Auburn on Nevada Street. This band is from the Grass Valley area and members include Ron Gaynor on dobro, Rob Shotwell on banjo, Taylor Carey on guitar, and Cecelia Shotwell on bass. They were very entertaining and play a really nice variety of bluegrass and contemporary music. Oh… and no mistakes! ……….. Just had to say that…….The food and drink is good too! Nice place to eat while you listen to some great bluegrass. You can call the Downtown Grill @ 530-889-1810 to find out when they are playing there next.