It’s easy to get caught up in the mistakes we’ve made. Many people I know, including myself, will stay up all night agonizing over what went wrong, what they could have done differently, whether the blame is on them or someone else, all kinds of things. These mistakes we agonize over can often seem petty to others; I had a close friend in high school, Andy, who was an honor student the whole four years. He stayed up all night working on problems, solving equations, reading textbooks, I was perfectly average with my C’s and B minuses while Andy was a Straight-A student whose mailbox was bursting with scholarship offers. One day my senior year we had a test in history class and the teacher had forgotten to tell us that there were a few questions on the back of the paper. Most of us noticed it but Andy had completed the test in a hurry and turned it in without noticing. He ended up earning a B on the test because of the missed questions. He freaked out about it. We were sitting at lunch and he was losing his mind over something I considered so banal and normal I just couldn’t wrap my head around why it was such a big issue to him.
We as musicians can often sound like Andy when we make mistakes. “I played a B instead of a B-flat, my string broke, I dropped a drumstick in the middle of the song…” these mistakes can seem like major issues that haunt us for weeks on end, but to the average member of your audience, they don’t notice! I remember one time I played a small gig at a bar in my hometown, I was filling in as a bass player for a local country band whose regular bassist had gotten sick. I showed up to the gig with all my gear, I had learned all the songs over the past few days, setup went smoothly it was seemingly all good. Problem: We didn’t have time for a proper rehearsal and soundcheck beforehand, no one thought it would cause major issues and we started with a simple song with a basic chord progression to make sure we could all ease into the gig. Upon starting the song I realized something terrible: my bass was tuned to the wrong notes. I had been playing with an alt-rock group the previous night who played every song in E flat tuning and forgot to tune back to E standard afterward. The members of this country band were all playing in E standard, which meant I was playing every note a half-step out of key which if you’ve never heard such a thing, consider yourself blessed because it is incredibly harsh, dissonant, and grating to the ear. I of course start panicking and wondering what the problem is, realize my mistake and I start trying to accommodate the issue, exacerbating the problem is that I had learned a few of these songs by heart on my own time years ago and had them drilled into my memory, which made intentionally playing them differently a nightmare for me since most music is muscle memory. It wasn’t too bad with the simple song we started on but as the songs progressed I had to start using more advanced techniques; riffs, walking bass-lines, bass chords, the works, making the problem even harder for me to mitigate, and we didn’t have any time between songs so I was stuck in this state the whole gig which was blessedly only thirty minutes long, but it was the longest thirty minutes of my entire life. Eventually, we close our set, the sound technician mutes us, I breathe a sigh of relief, and the lead singer of the band approaches me, extends his arm for a handshake, and says words I never expected to come out of his mouth: “Hey man, you did great back there it was awesome!” I blinked at him a couple of times before shaking his hand and thanking him for his compliments. I packed up my stuff and as I got off stage I noticed my friend and musical colleague, Zach, sitting at a table with a few of his friends, I came over to say hi to him and as we chatted for a minute I asked if he noticed anything wrong with my playing. He looked at me funny and said: “I think there were a couple of blue notes during the first song but no I didn’t notice anything.” I was flabbergasted, the man had been playing music for far longer than I had, and had heavy experience with bass guitar, the very instrument I had been playing that night and hadn’t noticed anything. He turned and asked his friends at his table if they noticed anything wrong and they also gave me a resounding “no.”
I wished them farewell and on my drive home I thought about the night and how panicked I was meanwhile no one was batting an eye at me. I thought about other times in life when I had screwed up royally when I thought it would be the end of me and no one seemed to even notice.
My friend Andy went home after getting his report card with the B test on it, and told his parents all about how stupid he felt for letting such a thing happen; they didn’t care. They told him that mistakes happen and he still had an A in the class overall so what was the worry? My friends and I teased him a bit for it, but ultimately reassured him it was no big deal and he was fine, the teacher even apologized to him for failing to mention the answers on the back. He wasn’t able to retake the test for whatever reason I don’t recall, but the effect on him was ultimately negligible.
Andy graduated as valedictorian from our school, got a full-ride scholarship to a prestigious university, works a steady, well-paying job, and is happily married with two kids. We still see each other now and then and fascinatingly, he has that test with the B grade hung on the wall next to his college diploma. I asked him about it when I first saw it and he said “It’s kinda both funny and inspirational to me… I dunno it’s like I can laugh at my past self for being so high-strung and anxious, striving for perfection at every turn… but it also reminds me that mistakes don’t define me and ultimately, life usually works out for you. Heck if I had never made such a big fuss about it at the lunch table no one probably would have even noticed it.“
The same principle applies to music: If I had decided to stop the show in the middle of a song and awkwardly apologized to everyone in the room as I re-tuned my bass guitar, then they all would have noticed my screw-up. But keeping my head down, focusing on the problem, and doing my best to fix it yielded a much better result. So next time you’re about to begin a sweet solo but start on the wrong note, don’t look around awkwardly at everyone and imagine them all casting judgment at you, just push forward, fix it, and let the magic happen.
Written by Joe Wendermann for Wholenoterepair.com