If you’re interested in the relationship between our brains and the music we play, two books that explore this intriguing subject are This Is Your Brain on Music and Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy.
The brain is a powerful organ that has allowed the human race to erect skyscrapers, fly to the moon, and build ships to cross the great oceans. And let’s not forget about the inspired minds that conceived the Telecaster, tube amps, and flatwound strings. Yes, our minds can hatch plans to realize monumental achievements. But at the opposite end of the spectrum, the brain can just as easily hinder us from greatness.
As bassists, it’s our brains that helped lead us to playing music in some form or fashion. We’ve learned how to hold the bass, strike the strings, listen, replicate, and repeat. Our brains got us this far. Then we start to assume we’ve learned everything we need to know for a playing situation, whether it’s a friendly jam, a recording session, or a stadium show. Our brain has given us confidence and rewarded us with retention to make each musical event unique and hopefully pleasing.
There are those times, however, when our brain does a complete 180 and leads us down dark paths. Our brain and fingers don’t line up, and voilà, a clam is born. You hit a bad note. No, that one note will generally not bring down a whole gig and most people won’t even notice. Yet in the heat of the moment, that note feels like a glowing neon arrow hanging over your head announcing “It was him! It was him!” This is the crossroads: What you do next with that bad note can be the difference between a hiccup and a full-blown train wreck.
Enter the snowball effect. One small flake—or in this case a bad note—gathers with another and then another. Before you know it, there is a hotbed of negative energy flowing and we’ve quickly moved from an innocent tick to a seemingly endless avalanche of problems. To demonstrate how this can happen, let me give you a glimpse into my head for a moment.
Suppose I hit a bum note in a live setting. (My drummer would probably say it’s not hard to imagine.) After that note, my head might start saying a number of things: “Well that sucked. Is my bass in tune? Should I have changed my strings? Wow, these in-ears sound bad. Wait, are we extending the solo? Is there a bass breakdown? What’s my vocal part again? Crap, I just tripped.”
All these thoughts can happen in the blink of an eye. In the meantime, however, your fingers are still on the fretboard, there are still a lot of paying patrons in front of you, and there are many more notes to be played.
As these thoughts knock around our heads, our brain can unfortunately disengage again and push us further from our goals by causing more bad notes, missed cues, or even a total meltdown. How can we make it stop? Why is this even happening? What now?
To help explain, I’ll revisit a recent conversation I had with a prominent college basketball coach. We were discussing failure and overcoming the cloud that hovers overhead in these kinds of situations. He asked me if I remembered my first failure. Oddly enough, it had to do with performing onstage when I was 5 years old. And it was a massive failure. But I was 5, so cut me some slack, right? He assured me that it’s all part of the process, but he also shared something with me I’d never heard before.
If you’re onstage, in the studio, or even jamming in the garage, you’re good enough to be there. If you’re good enough to be there, then you are also good enough to get back on the horse and sort out the difference between the things you can control and the things you can’t. If the star player on his basketball team misses a game-winning shot, the coach tells him he can’t wait to see him take that shot again. If you miss a note, it’s not the time to worry about everything else going on in the world. It’s time to refocus and get back to work. And luckily for us, the game isn’t on the line.
The game might not be on the line, but in reality, your gig could be. What separates good players and great players certainly has to do with not making mistakes. But it also comes down to the most important note you can play: the one after the mistake.
When you hit a clam, breathe, smile, and move on. Your brain will want to fight you on this, but you can overcome this self-defeating behavior by simply relying on the strength of what landed you the gig in the first place. All of the causes of the snowball effect such as anxiety, fatigue, or worry should be out of your head, and replaced with your skill set and the knowledge that you know what to do next.
Have you ever noticed how you play your best when you aren’t really thinking? The notes fly much more freely when you and your brain are relaxed and working as one. This is where your head should be the moment a bad note occurs. It’s easier said than done, but once you learn how to master the millisecond it takes to reset your brain after a mistake, that potential snowball will remain a mere snowflake.