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Riley Music Academy Music Cast: Embracing failure

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Embracing failure

Let me share something with you. I hate when someone points out that I’m wrong. I don’t think it’s a unique trait, but I notice it frustrates me more and more as time goes on. It’s something I’m working on.

Believe it or not, I was ‘wrong’ whilst on a gig last weekend. Let me set the scene. I was playing as a dep for a band I’d worked with just a handful of times before and although they’d sent through some music notation, after looking through the set list, I thought I could easily wing it. I think 90% of the gig went ok. I played a few things which didn’t quite feel right to me but probably passable overall. The last 2% was on a specific tune where I could hear the line I wanted to play but kept playing the wrong note. I knew I was wrong and despite several attempts and experimentation, I failed to play it right. I think I was close to working it out, but I was interrupted by a tap on the shoulder. As I turned to face the other band member he shouted out “minor 7th not major 7th”. My response was an embarrassed “yep, got it”. Not a polite “thank you” but a grumpy answer as if the band member wasn’t doing me a favour at all. I was furious with him for hearing that I’d played it wrong and had corrected me. I know, stupid, right? Whilst finishing the song I internally recited a list of excuses why I had played something wrong. Things like: “I can’t hear myself, I’ve never played this tune before, the song sucks anyway, this whole gig stinks (this was a total lie as they had offered us beer and pizza and the rest of the band were good and lovely people)!” Notice the downward spiral? Does anyone else experience this? I was mentally throwing my toys out of the pram.
The next stage was to blame myself.  ”I didn’t warm up properly, my ear obviously isn’t as good as I think it is, why did I get it so wrong when it was such an easy phrase to hear? Maybe I’m not cut out for this, I ‘should’ have nailed that and I didn’t. I’m no good.” Again my negative monologue took over and I spiralled.
Luckily, I have learnt to catch myself at this point, otherwise the downward spiral continues. I think this is the case for many players and I always remember an incredibly talented saxophonist who threw his Selmer Mark VI across the room during a gig. Or so the story goes.
The point was, I made a mistake and it was due to being unprepared. I didn’t print off the charts, I didn’t even look through them prior to the gig, I was cocky and thought I could get away with the set, I thought my ear was trained enough to cope with the situation and I was wrong. And that’s okay. Making these mistakes are like signposts along the path to musical success (sorry that sounds like a cheesy cliche).
Do you ever get to the stage where you wonder what on earth you need to practice? Well…play a humdinger of a mistake during a gig and it has just spelled out exactly what you need to work on!
Some of you readers came along to the Stratford Jazz Jam Session last week and I was really pleased with the atmosphere there. It was a great opportunity to make mistakes and work out what you can and can’t do. I had a booked a great drummer and bass player that made me feel nervous but I tried to look at it like an opportunity to work with these fine musicians rather than wow them. It’s so easy to get yourself in a state and once the nerves hit, it’s hard to get yourself out of uncomfortable situation – I use a few methods which I will probably describe in a future post.
The bottom line is that once you know for sure what you have failed at, you learn from the mistake and PREPARE! To fail is human, what’s more concerning is failing repeatedly and not noticing!
A good teacher should be able to help you with this but you can also ask trusted friends. If you can’t think of anyone to ask or you are totally on your own then here are some ideas to help you:
Mistake: Can’t play a line fast enough
Preparation/Remedy: Technical work (slow methodical practice of the mechanics behind your instrument)


Mistake: Getting lost
Preparation/Remedy: Listening more, playing in a group and counting in your head whilst playing (start with simple phrases then ramp it up)


Mistake: Pitching problems
Preparation/Remedy: Long tones, scales, arpeggios and ear training


Mistake: Not having enough improv. ideas
Preparation/Remedy: Transcribing. Limiting your choices – playing just 3 notes of the scale rather than all 7, playing everything in triplets, only working in one register/position (high or low)
Sometimes it’s simply a case of looking through the material in plenty of time before the performance. Often, it’s just a case of repeat, repeat, repeat. As the old adage goes, practice not until you get it right but until you don’t get it wrong!
Lastly, don’t beat yourself up too much. My gig was 90% good, 8% passable and just 2% atrocious! It’s easy to hold on to the negative as our brains seem to be hard wired that way. In fact, I chose to not use the notation because I wanted to play by ear. I considered it a good move for my development and it probably was. Being outside of your comfort zone is, surprise surprise, uncomfortable! Now I will obsess over that tune for a while in my practice sessions and the chances are I will never play it wrong again.
Take things on, fail, get up, move on.

Post a comment below (I read them all)


3 Comments Add a Comment
  1. Les whiteman
    January 27, 2017

    Don’t beat your self up Jay, you are a really good musician, and teacher.
    I make all the mistakes you mentioned, l am trying to improve, it just takes time !!

  2. Onno
    January 30, 2017

    I played “work song” once on a jam you know well with a acclaimed host on alto and next to a trumpeter you know well too, convinced it was a 12 bar blues and in another key…. When I was done, most likely somewhere midfield the progression I knew it was shit and I said, “well… that was rubbish”… and the host went “yup”… I will never forget that one. Learned a good lesson there and then.

    • Jay
      January 31, 2017

      Sounds like a date I went on in my youth!

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