Grace Under Pressure

This week’s column is inspired by a conversation I had with someone on a recent tour. Everyone in this story will remain nameless, so as not to get anyone into trouble.

The “someone” is one of the best guitarists I’ve known, and he’s a stand up guy. He’s played with just about everyone who you can imagine over the past 30 to 40 years of his musical career and remains very highly respected in the music community.

He recently toured as a duo act with a very famous songwriter, who is known to be a bit eccentric.. When I asked him how it went, he kind of made a face and tried to change the subject. Uh-oh… then I got him to tell me the story.

To begin, the guitarist was never sent music for the tour, which included many large venues, and was never told what he’d be playing. As a veteran capable of hearing his way through a gig, he wasn’t sweating very much. But on stage, there were moments where the songwriter would call him out in embarrassing ways. This sort of behavior was actually picked up by a writer covering one of the shows, and the details made it into an article with the author railing against the songwriter for her antics.

My take is that the songwriter was projecting her own insecurities and moodiness onto him and making him the scapegoat for her mistakes. For example, she’d call out a tune in G, and proceeded to play it in G#. When the guitarist struck the first chord – obviously a half-step off – the songwriter stopped, turned and said “What are you doing?!”.

On stage.

In front of thousands of people.

There was more, but you get the point.

What struck me more was how the guitarist handled himself, and this is the point. He managed to turn every moment around by telling a joke and getting the crowd laughing and more comfortable.

He handled the entire episode with grace and humility. He said that he knew that there was no other way, except for storming off. He decided he wasn’t going to outdo her in a dirt slinging contest or argue on stage. It was either pack up his guitar during the show and leave her there or try and turn it into a bit of a schtick and laugh it off, deciding later whether or not he’d ever work with her again.

He even went so far as to buy her a single rose at the end of the tour and hand it to her saying, “Thanks for the opportunity to play with you again, I apologize for any awkward musical moments”.

I’m not sure that I myself (nor most anyone I know) are that capable of humility and have the sense of self to let that kind of stuff just slide. Granted, he’s done his time with difficult band leaders (years on the road with Ray Charles as a teenager, for example) and he’s been around the block. He’s a magical player and is self-confident. Never cocky – just self assured and very comfortable with himself both personally and musically.

Another example comes to mind. I was playing in a large theatre with a famous drummer and lesser known pianist, who is one of my favorites. The drummer started the tune, I entered and then… the pianist got turned around and came in about a beat-&-a-half off the one. He wasn’t able to recover and just as I was contemplating how he were going to turn it back around to align with the melody, the drummer stopped the tune politely, apologized into the mic saying that it was his fault and we’d like to start over. I was amazed! With a smile on his face, he re-started from the top and the tune went perfectly. No need to berate the guy who was obviously just nervous and you know is feeling low about what just happened. Smile instead, give a nod saying, “it’s cool… don’t sweat it” and press the reset button.

Even better, the audience roared in applause! They also knew exactly what had happened but, as many people said to me after the show, they loved the fact that even great players can make mistakes and they were amazed at how respectful the drummer was in his decision to assume the blame and not fire off a verbal shot at anyone.

The respect and humility, again, spoke volumes and actually turned the mistake into a positive experience for the listeners.

A smile and a kind gesture speaks volumes louder than those who feel the need to berate or belittle anyone on or off stage. In the end, it doesn’t matter who is at fault, it only matters that we do our best to make beautiful music and treat others with the kindness and respect that we all want.

Deep down, we all know what happened, no need to stand up on the high horse and declare your superiority. If someone does something well, let them know. If someone makes a mistake, forgive it and move on. If someone treats you poorly, try and be the bigger person. You don’t have to say yes to the next gig but the ability to rise above stuff like that will serve you better than flying off the handle ever will and if someone treats you badly on the gig (or behind the scenes) play it with class. That makes them look even more foolish and will leave an impression with everyone else who’s gets the story.

A great attitude is priceless, especially in this industry!

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to [email protected]. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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  1. Greg