Stefon Harris has this great discussion on Youtube on the topic of jazz and mistakes. Check it out
Harris says that mistakes are opportunities. If you want to take the music somewhere, you can’t push and pull the others forcefully. You contribute to the motion and color and feeling by listening and responding. Forcing things to go in a certain direction will alienate your collaborators more than inspire them. As long as one accepts the other’s music, then the group plays and creates a big music with deep feeling and meaning.
Let The Musicians Play
I’ll talk about myself a little, though I’m certainly not the perfect example that all musicians should follow. I do tend to take unusual approaches to music sometimes. For example, I don’t tell others what to play very much. I know this has thrown a few of my musical collaborators off a bit, because lots of folks are used to finding a specific part and playing that. “This is my part, and I’ll play it this way.” I figure the music works best for me if every practice and every performance has a spontaneous and present flavor to it. It has to smell and taste like “now.” And I tend to gravitate towards musicians who can put a lot of “now” into their playing.
I once heard an interview where mandolinist David Grisman said that playing with guitarist Doc Watson was always a great experience in the 80s and 90s, because Watson never told anyone in those sessions what to play or how to play. That’s trust and respect.
This “free” approach isn’t a magic formula. Sometimes musicians do need more direction, of course. There are settings, such as orchestral music, where freedom is the opposite of what makes the music come alive. You have to find the approach that works in your situation, so you can’t just follow this or that dogmatically. No matter what the approach your music needs, the trust and respect you give to your collaborators is a potent fuel for feeling a great moment with the music.
Earning and Giving Respect
What if the musicians around you haven’t earned your trust and respect? What if you’re frustrated because they aren’t playing very well? maybe they are playing fine but you’re just in a bad mood. Maybe you just need to give folks a little more room to play. The competitive nature of music and the music biz makes a lot of folks grouchy, arrogant, and disapproving jerks. Watch out so you aren’t becoming one yourself.
(Insert here your favorite memory of a conductor throwing a tantrum, because that is obviously what music is all about.)
Perhaps you are standing next to someone who really doesn’t have his technical chops down solid. If you’re trying to play with someone who is seriously in over his head, that will drag you down. In that case, you can be respectful to the person by trying to help them out as much as you can, even if you can’t trust the musician to stand up to the challenge. We’ve all been in that situation where we’re just struggling and fighting with the music, and nothing good is coming out of it. So be respectful when someone else is struggling, even if you have to shake things up to get the music right. Respect the person even if you can’t respect the music.
There is a difference between technical mistakes and improvising opportunities. You need to have sound musical technique. Bad timing, slowing down the groove, playing out of tune, and making lots of rattle and clunk are not what your audience is listening for. The mistakes can be opportunities for learning and improving, as I wrote in the previous post on this blog.
Bottom line; A lot of bad music is made in the name of “freedom” and “breaking the rules.”
on the other hand,breaking the so-called rules, listening, following, accepting, and trusting are all the breath and heartbeat of the spontaneous improv side of music. Can you follow the rules, break the rules, play freely, play strictly, whatever your approach, and carry the life and the story across to your audience?
Tell A Story
Performing music well is like telling a great story. Folks usually don’t worry if someone makes a few small hesitations, mistakes, and “ums” while telling that great story. People are more interested in you and what you are saying, as long as you are making that story come alive.
Imagine a person who doesn’t speak the lingua franca well because she grew up with a different language as her first tongue. There’s no reason why that person can’t tell a great story despite her limitations in grammer and vocabulary. Carry that over to your music, and you get the point. Try to get the technical things write, but at some point you have to get past musical grammar and spelling. At some point you have to make the story come alive, even within your technical limitations.
John hartford used to say that style is a function of one’s technical limitations. That’s a good thing to tell yourself once in a while. “I can only work within these limits and parameters, so whatever I come up with, that is my style.”
the next time you practice, alone or with others, think about the stories you are trying to tell with your music. What story, picture, and feeling can you speak into each piece of music you practice? Try to go beyond the rote and get to the story behind the notes.