Rehearsing for Cowards? Don’t Kid Yourself.

If you’ve not read anything by Seth Godin, consider doing so.  While I disagree with him in this particular instance, I find myself agreeing with and learning from him far more often (every other time he’s opened his mouth or put pen to paper).

Now that the praise is out of the way . . .

A recent post of his – Rehearsing is for Cowards – got me thinking that, no, rehearsing is most decidedly not for cowards.

I think I understand what Seth is saying when he says you shouldn’t ‘rehearse,’ you should ‘explore’.  Well, sure.  Whenever you’re practicing your mind should be open to change and new ideas. During a live performance the spontaneous energy of your audience and the performers can push your show in a different but more engaging direction than you had originally intended.  Insisting that your performance and the performances of those around you be exactly the same every time is doing yourself a disservice.  But there’s somthing about his language (“repetition,” “regurgitation”) that I feel casts good old woodshedding in a negative way (which it doesn’t deserve).

Consider the following:

You went on that stage to play Rock Your Face Off, Pt. II: The Reckoning, but something a little different found it’s way out of your instrument.

So were you exploring, or did you just plain screw up?

The truth is that you and the bassist were totally out of sync, and the drummer had to change tempos to adjust.  The result was a rendition of RYFO2:TR with an extra beat in the second chorus.  Who enjoyed that?

Did you? No, you were freaking out, and the euphoric rock star you become on stage took a temporary back seat to the confused musician who knows it’s not going well and was trying to find a way back to the groove.

Did the Audience?  No, they know how RYFO2:TR goes, and they know there isn’t an extra beat in the second chorus.  For a while they were rocking out to the steady waves of energy emanating from your performance.  But your little exploration disturbed those waves enough that everyone’s dance steps and head-bobs became erratic and stalled.  Rocking out recommenced only after you and the band were back in familiar territory.

It was an accident, no one enjoyed it (not even you), and it degraded your performance.  In this situation I think Seth’s advice is a little dangerous.  It would be easy to tell yourself that you and the band were just ‘seeking the hitches’ and that extra beat was a ‘chasm that helped you leap forward’, but I don’t think any of those phrases would be accurate.

I think it’s fair to say you screwed up.

I’m not sure if Mr. Godin has ever played an instrument or performed in any musical capacity, but if he had, I don’t think he would look so far down at “the repetition of doing it before you do it.”  That’s exactly what we musicians require.  We musicians have to deal with muscle memory.  On top of having new ideas, we need our muscles to execute those new ideas.  But sometimes, our muscles just don’t like new ideas.  When that happens, the only option for you is repetition.  Otherwise, your new idea stays entirely cerebral and never becomes a physical reality.

Music is Not Magic

In the music community, there exists the idea that musical ability is, to some degree, magic.  The idea that mastery of your instrument depends not on study or technical skill but getting in touch with ‘The Music”.  Only those that can attain some spiritual link with ‘The Music’ can succeed.  Can’t get through that tough 16th note passage?  Well, you’re not in touch with the magic.  You must not love it enough.

Sorry, but that’s not how it works.  Sometimes there is nothing to do but grind through something – again and again – in exactly the same way  – until it feels natural.  Then exploration will make sense, will feel right.  Improvising around something you don’t have a handle on won’t get you anywhere you want to go.

So why do I care?  Well, I think this idea of music as magic is destructive.  I’ve seen a lot of musicians sabotage themselves by trying to ‘get in touch with the magic’ instead of practicing.  I’ve also seen a few teachers urge their students to ‘feel the music’ when they came up against a lack of technical skill in their students.  Maybe they just didn’t know how to put into words what the student needed to do next, or maybe they just lacked the patience to put it into words, but the result is the same: they’ve given the student the impression that they are permanently defective rather than just under-practiced and inexperienced.

I’ve also heard a lot of awful music made from bands that did not bother to do anything other than what was immediately available to them technically.  They mean well, setting out to ‘explore’ and ‘break rules.’  But in failing to create a structure or idea that would force them into new territory they just keep churning out what’s comfortable.  Paradoxically, their attempt to challenge themselves and their audience results in music that is safe and boring.

Of course, there are some things that can’t be rehearsed.  Releasing your band’s first EP or starting your first independent theater company are things you’ll never feel completely prepared for.  You can try to run the gauntlet ahead of time in your head, but you’re wasting your time.  You’ll reinforce what you imagine might happen, leaving you relatively unprepared for – and stealing time away from dealing with – what actually happens.  In these situations, you’re probably just treading water out of fear.

Exploration and experimentation should be part of every creative process.  But sometimes, you just have to grind it out.  Call it ‘repetition’ or ‘regurgitation’ or whatever ulgy name you want.  Just don’t lie to yourself about what your audience wants or what you’ll have to do to deliver.

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