I’ve recently had a mindset shift that’s helped me shake loose a lot of my self critical thinking when I perform.
Like most musicians I’m my own worst critic. Mistakes that are barely noticeable to anyone outside of myself can derail an entire gig, as I get caught up in beating myself up, and descend into shame, thinking that I’m a terrible drummer, and the bass player must hate playing with me etc. I don’t know to what extent you feel this, but I do know one thing for certain. There’s no quicker way to remove yourself from actually playing music and responding to what’s around you. I was always frustrated at the fact that it felt like I was only performing at 70% of my best.
In October I went to a masterclass with Matt Halpern from Periphery. Small group of people, up close and personal. The question I asked was if he had nights where he came off stage and wasn’t happy with how he played. “Every night” was his answer. So I asked how he dealt with it. This is where the gold was.
He explained that when you’re performing, especially touring and playing backline/gear sharing there’s so many variables that you can’t control. You might have had a shitty nights sleep. You might be injured. The kit might not feel right. Foldback might not be happening. There’s too many to name all of them. As much as you’d like to have total control of what’s happening, it’s simply not the case. He also told a story of Mike Johnston performing a clinic at PASIC. After the clinic Russ Miller, Matt and a few others went back to talk to Mike. They congratulated him on a great clinic, and he told them that he thought it was shit, that when he practiced it at his studio it had been way better, and then Russ told him the magic words. “It’s the same with everyone. When you’re playing live, 70% is a good gig.” We’re human. We’re not a drum machine, and we shouldn’t expect ourselves to be one.
Now my attitude going into a gig is that if I give this 70%, then it’s going to be a good gig. Now don’t misinterpret this. I’m not saying that I half ass my preparation, or only learn 70% of the material. All it means is that I give myself a buffer, where if I make a little mistake, then it’s no big deal, it’s just part of my 30% margin of error. Since then I’ve enjoyed my gigs a lot more, and because I haven’t gotten stuck in my own head beating myself up I’ve actually played better as well! Here’s an example of how this helped me recently.
My band Mabel were playing a show at the Oxford Arts Factory on the Gallery stage. For those that haven’t been there it’s a tiny concrete room with a very small stage. I’m a pretty tall guy (185cm/6’2”) and like to sit pretty high because of this. We were kit sharing with the headliners, and when I got onstage I realised that the stool didn’t go up. Not even a little bit. So I was stuck! Usually this would have de-railed me, and I’d already be thinking that it’s going to be a shitty gig, but this time I thought “It’s all good, just give it 70%.” It wasn’t my greatest gig, but I was able to enjoy it instead of shitting on myself the entire time.
So try it. Take some of the pressure off. Make 70% the new 100% and let me know how you go.