Play it like you mean it
We’ve heard the phrase, but what does that really entail? For me, when I hear that, I usually go one of two ways—1) getting mad because I was already trying really hard and why is someone asking MORE of me, or, 2) realizing I was kinda slacking off and that I could do better. Either way, hearing “play it like I mean it” brings awareness and a chance to reflect and adjust. The question may become, “how would you like to be playing this?”
“Make your mistakes big”
This was advice given to me by Paul Sharpe, my classical bass teacher for several years while I attended Texas Tech University. That, usually accompanied by “don’t play like a timid mouse.” Again, depending often upon my exhaustion or frustration, I would either get mad (“But this is really hard!”) or realize I was already playing apologetically, and my uncertainty was what was conveyed, not any musicality. I stuck with it, tried to play “bigger”, with more intention, not backing away from mistakes, and…whaddya know—I got a lot better. It wasn’t that I was practicing making “big mistakes” or even “ignorance with confidence”, but that I was learning to trust the process. And, I was learning to “play like I mean it.” I was learning what it meant to put my all into a note, a phrase, an entire passage, and so on.
There is magic and growth that happens when we play with intention and intensity. We learn faster. When mistakes are big, it is more glaringly obvious what needs to happen to correct it. And, the satisfaction of playing something “right” is likewise highlighted. It is as though we get to memorize those sensations in the body faster. “Ah! That’s what it’s supposed to sound and feel like!” There’s less guess work. There’s less “moist”—it’s on or off, hot or cold, wet or dry. It’s the magic of contrast. But, more than that, it’s the magic of attention. That’s where our real currency is, the “present” or gift of the present tense. Play like I’m here. Play like I care.
When I practice this way, making my mistakes big, playing like I mean it, I am much more prepared for any actual performance. I’m no longer playing with the idea of “I’ll fix that later”, “no body’s listening”, “I’ll skip over this part for now.” It’s scary in that it is laying it all out there, being authentic and leaving behind excuses of “this is just rehearsal”.
I find practicing and playing this way translates to more than just music. I start living my life with intention, not in rehearsal. My communication improves. I leave less unsaid. I put in a little more effort. I pay attention to detail and presentation. My movements are bigger and with more muscle when I exercise. I dress less sloppily. I choose my words more carefully.
To “play like I mean it” translates to “living like I mean it.” I suppose it’s just one more reflection upon the phrase “how you do anything is how you do everything.” For me, it’s a very tangible practice of life enrichment.
“Spontaneous is a euphemism for unprepared.” -Tom Jackson
I used to play in a “jam band” of sorts. We almost never rehearsed, but were pretty tight. We were good, but not great. We were generally locked in, but our songs wandered from time to time. Everyone knew the songs, but we never spent a lot of time discussing or developing the arrangements. We just played what we felt like playing.
We never had a shortage of gigs, but if I'm being honest, we weren't as good as we could have been. Every person in that band could play their ass off, but since we never rehearsed the songs our output was pretty inconsistent. Even talking about the songs would have been an improvement. By all of us playing all the time the song lost any sense of meaning & was just a bunch of people playing the same chord progression.
In a band setting the context of the arrangement is key. Take time to know where each section is going & be aware of the dynamics of the song. Where does it get loud? Where does the guitar drop out? Do we even need a guitar solo? If everyone knows where you are going then you'll avoid those awkward moments when one or two people take off in the wrong direction.
“A live show is not the time to wing it.” -Ari Herstand
Too many times I've said, “Let's get up there and see how it goes.” It rarely goes well. I've been in bands where we don't know a song well & try to execute it live anyway. This generally creates an on-stage train wreck. So, how does a band, or a solo artist “correctly” prepare to play live? My biggest advice is to reread what my friend Anne wrote above; her advice will help most people learn to play their music on a higher level. Once we know the material, we're ready for rehearsal.
Rehearsal is not for practice. If you are at rehearsal you should already know the songs. My biggest pet peeve is when someone asks, “What song is this?” or “How does this one go?” If you don't know the song, you're not ready to rehearse. This is important because rehearsal is where you make your performance come alive. This is where a band or solo artist is not learning a song, but learning how to convey the music with conviction. Practice is where you learn the song, rehearsal is where you learn its story & how to tell it.
“Don't memorize chords.” -Me
All too often I have students who try to learn a song by memorizing the order of the chords. This is pretty natural, I still slip and do it sometimes. Simply memorizing the chords lets you know where your hands are going, but that's not helpful for playing the song in a larger sense.
I also struggle to retain songs for any solid length of time when I memorize chords. I've found it's better to really know the melody of the song you are playing & let that guide what you play next. When I let the melody inform where the song is going, I learn it faster, retain it longer, & play it better than by trying to remember the order of the chords. Also, this helps me quickly transpose songs into a new key & not get lost, which is really helpful when I'm playing with another artist.