Getting Through A Bad Gig

Bassist on Stage

Q: What do you do on a bad night? Like, if the gig is not happening, what’s the best way to avoid toxicity and frustration and make the best of it?

A: This question extends far beyond just musical situations. I recently heard an interesting podcast interview with a specialist who studies emotions and the brain, which served to confirm a few things that I’ve long suspected as I observe the tendencies of myself as well as those around me.

The majority of emotions we feel are, at a less conscious level, a choice. Of course, body and brain chemistry play a role but much of how we react in any given situation can be attributed to learned behavior.

Briefly, the foundation of the interview revolved around how our brains receive information and, as it turns out, our brains process only large, vague impressions of emotion. Lust, fear, anger (I’m paraphrasing here. If I remember correctly, there were four blanket categories). How we process every moment has everything to do with how we choose to react and how we choose to perceive the things that happen to and around us.

Did that guy just run to the front of the plane to get off first because he’s an a** or, is he perhaps about to miss a connection. Is he overwhelmed by emotion and anxiety because something happened back home that he’s desperately trying to be there for and is, for the moment, too full of emotion to concern himself with common courtesy?
Maybe he’s just an a** but, so what? I usually just wind up feeling sorry for them because I imagine how little joy their life must hold (when someone is truly just a horrible person).

This may not seem to be an obvious way to answer your question but I think that it is very much related to how to avoid toxicity. We have to always ask ourselves, in those moments where we react negatively to something if there is a more helpful angle (if we are to attempt to be thoughtful, civilized humans).

Even when it comes down to a stupid gig, or horrendous FOH engineer, or receiving less money than you anticipated, or a subbing drummer with bad time… the list goes on infinitely. How you choose to react can directly affect more than just your short-lived experience. It can continue to manifest itself in damaging ways, often feeding on itself and manifesting even more negativity in your life. I don’t mean to sound new-agey but anger begets anger. Frustration leads to bad decision making which often leads to more frustrating things happening to you.

We all know that one person who everything seems to happen to. They might be constantly frustrated by life so they slam the car door (which eventually gets wonky), they yank on cables when stuck instead of finding the snag (which breaks the cable eventually), the throw things in frustration (which break at the worst time because, of course, it would). Every moment of frustration, poorly dealt with, leads to more moments like that just around the corner.

So, in short, yes. Take every moment as an opportunity to learn, grow, laugh, experience.

Receiving less money than I expected taught me to be more clear in my professional communications (or who not to say ‘yes’ to, if you were clear already)

A musician with bad time is an opportunity to do many things. Focus on my internal clock and force them to follow me, I can work on my ability to communicate and direct things as I try and lead them a bit, treat it as an opportunity to help/teach someone who needs it, I can even experiment with a more “fluid” sense of time (on a jazz gig, at least?). Any of those would be more helpful than giving the guy/girl the stink eye all night and leaving in a huff because they made the gig ‘so hard’.

Crappy sound? Focus on watching the drummer and reading body language. See if you can tell what chord the guitarist is playing by watching the back of their hand (I got good at this with songwriters back in the day).

The only thing that will truly make the gig suck is if you take it personally or just focus on the anger/hate/frustration of the moment. Broaden your perspective.

The more narrow the lens through which we view the world, the lower our threshold or tolerance level, the more frustrating the world will be. Practice empathy and compassion. Consider all sides of an issue. Look at things from as many perspectives as you can envision.

Your world will be richer for it.

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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