Q: My band and I have started playing out in bars and clubs, and one thing keeps me on edge: No matter how much we prepare and rehearse, there are always hiccups. How do the pros know how to deal with things going wrong (like someone going to the wrong section of the tune, the drummer drops a beat or something)? I know it happens. I always hear musicians talk about the clams they made during this tune or that, and I never can tell. Are my ears bad or do you guys have some kind of super powers because, when one of us makes a mistake, it’s SUPER obvious (to me at least)?
A: One of the rarest phenomena on this green earth is the flawlessly executed show. For example, I’ve been touring with one artist for 7 or 8 years now, and I can only remember a few times where I thought to myself as I walked off stage, “man, I totally nailed that show and nobody in the band even stutter-stepped that whole time.” Something almost always goes wrong. It might be the bassist hitting the absolute worst wrong note at the worst time, it might be the drummer playing an accidental bar of 7/8 (usually proceeded by the most epic of fills), the keyboardist’s cable might go bad while he’s playing the melody, but you keep trucking on only to realize that, without the melody, you aren’t even sure where you are in the song anymore. Maybe it’s just a horrible sounding room with a horrible sound guy and nothing sounds right… all you can hear is the reverb send from the vocalist in your monitor. Maybe you’re playing to tracks and there’s a glitch and the track jumps 15 seconds in the song. The list of things that can, have and will go wrong is endless.
Most mistakes are recoverable. For those that aren’t, sometimes, you just have to stop everything, apologize for the glitch (whatever it is, and restart, hoping that you slay it the 2nd time around).
When it comes to general mistakes on the bandstand (dropped beats, guitarist jumps ahead and starts soloing when there’s still one more verse to go, etc.), there is no one perfect answer beyond not panicking and trying to follow the “group mind,” as I call it.
You have to be fluid and take into consideration what’s happening around you and, possibly, even the psychology of those in the group with you.
If you’re working with a singer, often the best choice is to put your laser focus on them and follow them. They’re what 95% of the audience is listening to anyway and they often have a harder time just skipping ahead a few words to match up with the band. They have the melody and the storyline (lyrics), so your best bet is often to lock with them. There will be times when nobody follows you and that can get sticky. Sometimes I’ll follow the singer for the rest of the phrase but, if I hear the band charging ahead anyway, try and hear where they are and line up with the band at a section change, so it comes in strong (which should help the vocalist readjust).
If the drummer drops a beat, there are two options. Jump on his train or give him a look and try to help him get back on track with nods, counting, simplifying and overemphasizing the bass line, etc. If the drummer is aware and has some experience, they will often be able to jump back into the swim without too much trouble (or, hopefully, too many bars going by). The very experienced drummer will often turn it into a somewhat ‘out’ but kind of hip rhythmic motif or phrase that comes back in on the proper one (“I meant to do that!”)
If the drummer is oblivious or unable to recover, it’ll be up to you, the bassist, to jump in with him and force the band to follow.
If the rhythm section is together, the rest of the band will definitely follow.
Often, my rule of thumb is to lock into my part and keep that rock-solid, as if nothing happened until I can hear what’s going on and analyze what to do about it if anything. This is some split-second decision making but it doesn’t usually take long to hear what the group consensus might be. I’m not talking bars but, rather, seconds to analyze and pick a course of action. This is where experience comes into play. The more you do something, the better you get at it and that very much includes making mistakes and/or recovering from mistakes.
If there is seemingly no group consensus, you might just have to take charge. Everyone is listening to the bassist and drummer or, at least, everyone becomes hyper-aware of them when they aren’t in sync with the rhythm section. If you and the drummer can lock it in and clearly state that, “here is the time, this is where we are, follow us”, things should smooth out pretty quickly.
As I’ve said, mistakes happen and they will continue to happen. Good job being proactive about learning how to cope. Just being aware and not panicking is pretty much all it takes and by the time you’ve really started to freak out, the ship will have righted itself. It usually just takes one person who can take charge and musically conduct the band back into a cohesive unit. Good luck out there in the trenches!
Side topic: Try not to get too mad at whoever made the mistake. We’re all doing the best we can out there and, chances are, they are already beating themselves up for it. No need to pile it on. Now, if it’s always the same person and they don’t even seem to register that they keep derailing the band? It might be worth having a discussion. I’d still approach it in a civil manner. Come at them strongly, and the defenses go up, making change less likely. We all make mistakes. Be cool and be a team player. Group dynamics go a long way towards group cohesion on the stage.