March-April 2013

Messing Up On Stage

By Dennis Roger Reed

Many folks have stage fright. It may be a slight sense of discomfort, or it may be morning sickness meets the flu. And even without any dose of stage fright, a nice fat mistake on stage can be very daunting. If you do expect to perform in public, you need to expect to make mistakes in public.

Botching something on stage can be traumatic. It’s very easy to amplify the mistake way out of proportion, though. Years ago my wife had a solo spot in a holiday choir performance. She did her bit, and the song moved on. After the show, she lamented her horrible mistake, not taking enough breath so that her final note expired in a wisp. Now, from where I was sitting, I didn’t hear or see any mistake. But she beat herself up for quite some time, and disdained the idea of doing any more solos. Several months go by, and we’re at a social function for this same church, and someone shouts out “Hey, I’ve got the video of the holiday concert. Wanna see it?” A chorus of yeses ensued. My wife stiffened with fright, knowing she’d have to live her horrible mistake all over again. Of course, there was no horrible mistake. She almost passed out with relief. “I’ve been beating myself up for months!” As a good husband, there was no “I told you so” on this one.

But what if it is a real mistake? What do you do? There are many options, including bursting into tears, running offstage, pointing at another performer or laughing nervously. Most of these aren’t good choices. Instrumental flubs are awful: I once hit a clanging wrong last note to a lively song going out over the radio on a live broadcast. I’m talking klunk: one audience member laughed out loud as the mistake was being made, and then that bad note sort of hung in the air for a moment… Another option for instrumental flubs is to recycle them as intended licks. The great Clive Gregson did a live recording with Christine Collister, and during Clive’s solo on I Heard It Through the Grapevine he hits an odd note… and then again, and then again.

Vocal mistakes are harder to cover. Nothing says “eeewww” like off key harmony. Perhaps you purchased a bootleg of the Big Sur Folk Festival with Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, and got to hear the mix heavily leaned towards Nash, who was having a rare bad day and singing horribly out of tune. Or maybe you heard some of those “live from the board” tapes of Linda McCartney and her background harmony grits. And if you’re singing solo, it’s naked time. I did a recent church service, and sang one of my own songs. Hadn’t sung it in some time, but did a quick run through before the service and could hit the high notes. It’s right at the top of my vocal range… and something happened in that hour since the practice. I went for the note at the end of the first line of the chorus and landed a good half step flat. There are three choruses in this song, and I sang all three. A total of 6 notes near the top of my range, and I only came really close on one. Eeeeewwww. I guess I could’ve stopped after I missed the first note, but I had apparently grandiose idea I could “sing through” the problem. I didn’t.

What causes mistakes? Everyone makes one now and then, but I think I can trace most of my embarrassing situations to lack of preparation or lack of knowledge of what my physical body was going through. If you haven’t practiced something, then practice it. My church performance was two songs, both originals, both songs I do not play very often. I practiced the first song a half dozen times in the week or so prior. I performed that one just fine. But I wasn’t sure about what I’d choose for the second song, and so no practice. Shame on me.

Most of my instrumental clunkers are from lack of practice, and sometimes lack of confidence. Sort of like if you think you will make a mistake, you will. It’s foolish to be overconfident (and not practice your songs) but on the opposite end, you have to keep your wits about you.

You can let your faux pas rob you of sleep, or retire from music. But I think a much better tact is to make the experience positive by allowing you to focus on what caused the boo boo, and how do you fix it. Maybe I should re-arrange my song down from B to A. Maybe it’s simply practice, so I need to run this song often to keep myself fresh, and confident that I can pull it off.

Attend some live music. Let the performers make mistakes. Eat and drink moderately, and get plenty of sleep. See you in the morning.

Dennis Roger Reed is a singer-songwriter, musician and writer based in San Clemente, CA. He’s released two solo CDs, and appeared on two CDs with the newgrassy Andy Rau Band and two CDs with the roots rockers Blue Mama. His prose has appeared in a variety of publications such as the OC Weekly and MOJO magazine. Writing about his music has appeared in an eclectic group of publications such as Bass Player, Acoustic Musician, Dirty Linen, Blue Suede News and Sing Out! His oddest folk resume entry would be the period of several months in 2002 when he danced onstage as part of both Little Richard’s and Paul Simon’s revues. He was actually asked to do the former and condoned by the latter. He apparently knows no shame.


All Columns by Dennis Roger Reed