As Dizzy Gillespie said, “Some days you get up and put the horn to your chops and it sounds pretty good and you win. Some days you try and nothing works and the horn wins.”
Photo by Roland Godefroy
You know that thing where you can’t play guitar? I don’t mean you’re not inspired. I mean that although you’ve been practicing and performing for years, one day, for no particular reason, your brain fails to connect to your hands, so it sounds like you’re playing with your toes instead of your fingers. This was me at a recent recording session.
I’m not being modest or exaggerating. I was a horrible musician that day. My internal rhythm sounded like tennis shoes in a dryer, randomly thudding away. My fingers felt like kielbasa sausages stuffed into Vienna cocktail weeny skins. My sweaty hands gave the guitar’s neck a granulated honey texture.
After about 20 failed takes, the engineer said, “Maybe you’re too sober.”After I recalibrated, it was all better … until it was worse. Regrettably, there’s no undo for a bad buzz, so I just had to ride it out.
The next hour combined panic with second-guessing, cursing my lack of ability, and reconsidering my life’s trajectory. It was like being a male porn star on set, suddenly stuck with drug resistant erectile dysfunction. The more I thought about it, the worse it got, and I began to wonder if I suffered an undetected mini-stroke or perhaps slipped seamlessly into a parallel universe where all was nearly the same, with the exception of my being able to play music.
Eventually, the engineer coaxed something out of me that he could make work. I went home defeated, joylessly ate an entire pint of B&J’s Chunky Monkey, and then passed out on the couch for a fitful two-hour nap, plagued with nightmares of my doomed session. When I awoke, I was afraid to pick up a guitar.
It comes down to this: Regardless of one’s ability, there are times when we get in our heads and cannot perform. Just ask former New York Yankees, Los Angeles Dodgers, Chicago White Sox, and Oakland Athletics second baseman Steve Sax. In 1983, Sax became incapable of throwing to first base. He would field a fast grounder or pop fly, but instead of making the easy out at first, he would throw the ball into the stands or miles above the first baseman’s head. Sax made 30 errors on throws to first in one season. Sax eventually got over it, and by 1989 he was leading the American League in both fielding and double plays, but to this day, his legacy to baseball remains the term “Steve Sax Syndrome.”
What does one do when feeling Saxy? I’ve spent several unsatisfying hours going down the web rabbit hole searching for tips on how to break the yips. Here’s what I found:
• Take a shower
• Pet an animal
• Give and get a hug
• Practice deep breathing
• Do some light bodyweight exercises
• Walk barefoot in the grass
• Write about what’s bothering you and then write about something you are grateful for
Who knows? Maybe if somebody hugged me while I was petting a dog in the shower, my ill-fated session might have turned around, but I doubt it. The muse is fickle, like a gambler’s luck, and my over-taxed mind has trouble fixing its own faulty wiring. However, I take comfort in the fact that I am not alone with my glitch. Off camera during a recent Rig Rundown with Coco Montoya, the Bluesbreaker alumni and guitar legend told me, “Some days they get Coco, some days they get caca.”
Or, as Dizzy Gillespie said: “Some days you get up and put the horn to your chops and it sounds pretty good and you win. Some days you try and nothing works and the horn wins. This goes on and on and then you die and the horn wins.”
Ultimately, to think is to undermine. The most natural task becomes impossible once performance anxiety takes over. Here’s a very male example. Ladies, consider yourself lucky if you cannot relate. When men are in a public restroom with 20 dudes lined up for 10 urinals, we usually experience a 15- to 30-second delay before our bodies obey nature’s call after we step up to, um, bat. Sometimes it won’t happen at all until we give up and walk into a stall. Regrettably, with music, there is no stall to escape to. You succeed or fail. There is some very real pressure to perform. I suspect that is why so many successful musicians walk away from it.
About 20 years ago, a talented keyboardist named Billy Livsey told me about being on tour with a band in England. One morning, after a particularly debauched gig, one of his bandmates had removed all of his possessions from the bus and left a note that said, “Goodbye cruel circus; I’m off to join the world.” I get it. I would rather have my tongue nailed to a table then go through another session like that ill-fated shit show.
A bad day is as real as you make it. But as bad as it gets, I will ride this music scam until I can no longer fool them. Playing terribly is miserable, but not playing at all is worse.