Be a Better Performer by Owning Your Mistakes

I worked all last month with an artist preparing for an industry showcase in L.A.  At the end of the month, we did a dress rehearsal on a large stage, running the whole set straight through a few times.  There were still some “mistakes” which kind of freaked him out at first, because he was afraid of doing things “wrong” – as in differently from what we had planned.  But I made him understand it was ok to throw out the plan and just trust himself, now that he had gotten down some important concepts.  If he made a “mistake”, it wasn’t a mistake if he owned it.  It was only a mistake if he got flustered and stopped singing. 

Mistakes are part of live performance.  They’re going to happen, because we are human.  They may not happen at every show, but they’re going to happen sooner or later.

Ill put my ego aside for a moment and confess to just a few of the recent mistakes I’ve made:

  • Singing the same lyrics for verse 1 and verse 2
  • Forgetting to double the first chorus like we practiced in rehearsal
  • Hitting some wrong notes on the keyboard
  • Playing the wrong rhythm on bass for a couple bars
  • Letting a bad word slip out in a venue that prohibits cussing (it was part of the lyrics!)
  • Moving to another place on stage during the prechorus, and then realizing I shouldn’t have moved during the prechorus, because I wanted to move on the chorus
  • Putting the mic on the stand (or taking it off) only to realize I needed to have it off (or on) immediately afterward
  • Saying stupid things between songs

If you have watched my Zen of the Stage DVDs, you’ll know that although I’m a fan of high achievement and constant improvement, I’m not a fan of perfection.  Perfection creates too much pressure.  It’s an unattainable goal.  Many variables change from night to night.  There are internal variables such as how much sleep we got and what kind of mood we’re in, and external variables such as the venue setup, the set list, and gear, to name just a few.

Mistakes happen.  What really matters is how you handle them.

There are two main ways to handle mistakes:  Ignore them, and OWN them.  The one thing you don’t want to do is try to fix them.

The kind of mistake will determine whether to ignore it or OWN it.  Here are some examples.

Singing the same lyrics for verse 1 and verse 2:  Most of the time no one’s going to notice, unless it’s a song everyone sings along to, like Sweet Child of Mine (which was, unfortunately, the song I made this mistake on).  In any case, however, the only thing to do is truck on with authority.  OWN those incorrect lyrics!  You can’t stop singing.  You can’t make a face.  You can’t half-*ss mumble the rest of the verse.  It’s much more important to sing the same lyrics again with authority and confidence than to point out with your body language that you made a mistake.

Forgetting to double the chorus (or any other song-arrangement mistake):  If you happen to make this kind of mistake, it’s your job as the lead singer to drag the band along with you.  Keep singing solid and confidently.  Make it obvious with body language that you are not backing down, you are forging ahead with your mistake.  Your strong and confident authority in a moment like this is the difference between a bump in the road and a train wreck.

Hitting wrong notes, playing the wrong rhythm, letting a bad word slip:  Nothing to do but keep a straight face and pretend it didn’t happen.  …Unless you’re playing jazz and you can repeat the creative mistake a couple more times to make it sound intentional, which means owning your mistake.

Stage-blocking mistakes:  Whatever you end up doing, own it.  It matters less that you stick to whatever plan you had for the song, than that you OWN what you DO end up doing.  I call it “juice”  – that extra zing that a really confident, intentional movement has.  There is a world of difference betweeen a lazy movement and a movement that you OWN- a movement with “juice.”

Saying stupid things between songs:  What really matters is that you have the right attitude, not that you say the right things.  In the words of my guitarist friend:  “You could yell nonsense at the crowd with the right attitude, and they would love it.”  OWN whatever it is you say, stupid or not.  Your communication is made up much more of HOW you say things, not WHAT you say.

Good luck at your next gig!  Hopefully these thoughts will take a bit of the load off the shoulders of the perfectionists out there.