Concentrating on the Gig

Guitarist and bassist

Q: I have a question about… mindset, I guess. I feel like I make a lot of unnecessary mistakes during gigs. I mean that it’s not a technical deficiency, and it’s not that I don’t know what needs to happen but I just seem to goof it up. Kind of a lot. Any advice?

A: This reminds me of a moment I had years ago, in which someone’s off-hand comment served to change my perspective for a lifetime. When I was very much still early in my developmental phase, I landed a recorded session with some players that were definitely more experienced than I was. I did fine and all was well (I got the music and charts ahead of time, thankfully) but, late in the session, after listening to a playback of our last takes of a tune… I became hyper-aware of how one of the guys just seemed to nail everything. The dude never put a note out of place, never misread a passage, never flubbed a note… I decided to ask how he managed to play so consistently… All. Day. Long.

He just shrugged and said, “I concentrate on what I’m doing.”

It was a moment that came and went in a blink and I’m sure he never thought of it again but it hit me in the gut and implanted itself in my mind in a meaningful way. After the session, I couldn’t stop thinking of that simple yet poignant approach to performing well (in whatever arena you choose to apply it).

As I thought about it, I realized that almost every mistake I could recall on that session or on any other gig, boiled down to me either over-thinking while I was playing or spacing out and thinking about other things. In either case, I was distracting myself from what I was doing. I was either thinking about how I didn’t want to mess something up as it approached, or I was feeling so safe and comfortable that I would let my mind drift. In either case, it caused the music and the musical moment to suffer (maybe not every time, but often enough that it bugged me).

Now, I realize that saying ‘pay attention’ for every moment of a 3-hour gig is almost like asking you not to think of the word “elephant” for 20 seconds. Kinda hard not to. Just as, if you keep reminding yourself to pay attention, you’re likely distracting yourself in the moment. And if you chastise yourself for drifting off for a moment, you’ll spend more time thinking about how you’re not paying attention than you will… paying attention.

Personally, I dealt with this in these ways:

  1. Emptying my mind before gigs. Whenever possible, I try to lay down in a quiet space and clear my head before the gig. This might be at home before I drive off, it might be in my hotel room, it might be resting in my car outside the venue, or it might be on a couch in the green room. I find that eliminating distractions as close to the gig as possible helps me to de-clutter my mind and hit the stage with a singular focus.
  2. I might throw on some headphones and either listen to what I’m about to play (if it’s less familiar than I would like) or listen to something that is stylistically relevant. I’ll often pick something that represents my gold standard for whatever style I’m about to play. Whether it’s listening to James Brown or D’Angelo before a groove gig, listening to Weather Report before a hard-hitting jazz/fusion thing, listening to Kenny Garrett before a contemporary jazz gig, listening to Justin Timberlake before a pop gig… Bilal…. whatever your gold standard is for the style you’re about to a body for the next few hours. Make that your world
  3. When I catch myself thinking about anything other than what I’m doing and what is happening in the music on stage, I find a way to focus on the music.
  4. If I’m reading, it might mean putting my focus into counting and looking ahead at the bars coming up, planning for fret-board shifts, making sure I know what’s coming up, etc…
  5. If I know the music, I might just start singing the bass line while I play (to myself… more of a light vocalization).
  6. If I’m locked into an ostinato type groove with a drummer, or walking a bass line, I might lock my eyes on the drummer (if it’s funk, I’ll likely watch the snare drum or the drummers movements in general.)
  7. If it’s swing, I’ll watch the ride cymbal and try to time my walking line with the stick hitting the cymbal). You might even watch the vocalists movements (feet, hips, head, whatever they use to dictate their own time feel) to try and feel the time in the same way they do. Find some way to visually re-focus your ears on your connection to the band and the music.

I can’t rightly write about this without at least mentioning that having your fundamentals down is also a bit of a pre-requisite. You mentioned that it wasn’t an issue with technical demands or skill-set, but made it seem to be more of a focus issue. It bears mentioning though.

A large part of a successful performance, with great time-feel, execution, and emotion requires that you have the muscle memory and musical know-how to make it happen, first and foremost. Once you’ve done the homework in the shed, the rest is down to your ability to concentrate.

As I say often; everybody is different and what works for me might not work for you. I think the essence of this approach will likely yield results, though. Explore ways to more fully immerse yourself in the moment, without simply just trying not to think about not thinking about other things.

Best of luck out there!

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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