Recently, I went through the most frightening turbulence on a plane I’ve ever experienced. At one point the plane must’ve dropped several hundred feet for what seemed like a long time but was probably just a few seconds. It left me shaken and, in the moment, very aware of how helpless I was as we fell through the air in a winged steel tube. I wasn’t the only one scared. It was the only time I’ve ever heard a collective gasp/moan/swear from an entire plane full of passengers. At that moment, I thought to myself, “I’m never flying again… if I even get out off of this plane!” After the whole thing happened, the captain came over the intercom to apologize for not seeing the signs of turbulence and avoiding the hot air we’d passed through. That eased my mind, at least, that the plane still had wings and we’d probably get to San Francisco.
Pilots practice taking off and landing a lot because those are the places that have the highest chance for an accident — so they want to get them right every time. I can see how it’d be easy to (almost literally) go on auto-pilot once the plane’s at cruising altitude and for some little mistake to have a big repercussion like the one we experienced.
Bands are the same way. You always hear that as long as the band members start and end together, most people won’t notice other mistakes. That’s pretty true — you’ve always got the end of the flight to redeem yourselves with a good landing! However, unlike planes, if you keep taking off badly and flying rough, no one will be in the room to see the landing.
Of course, bad landings are no good either. Last year, I saw a very tight Austin metal band with killer musicianship. Everything about them was precise. They were (are) very impressive…. but at the end of every song their drummer would immediately start messing around on his kit. This is really common and annoying as hell in rehearsal situations but I’d never seen such behavior at a show before. It had the effect of making the show seem too casual. It also made it unclear where the songs began and actually ended. It made for a less effective presentation of their otherwise really well worked out songs.
A couple months ago, I saw the same band and they’d cut the drum interludes. Their show was as professional and fun to watch as any Austin band I’ve seen at any level. They were really good. (Worth noting – they did all this having lost their incredible lead guitarist.)
All of that is good reason to practice your take offs and landings. But fixing that problem was pretty easy. Someone probably simply told the drummer to stop practicing his booduhluhkahs on stage and he stopped. Done.
So, yes, taking off and landing is important.
But just because you get off the ground and touch back down doesn’t mean you won’t hit turbulence! Taking off and landing helps get your passengers there, but if the rest of the flight sucks, you won’t see them on your plane again. (That was my last flight with that airline, though I must say that this incident it was only the rotten cherry on top of the already gross ice cream cone that was my experience with them over the course of 4 years.)
What about that turbulence that comes up mid-set like consistent “bonk” notes going into a chorus? Or, if your music is pretty complicated, a quick change that you only nail collectively half the time or less? Or the lyrics/syllables that the singer can’t remember or agree on how to enunciate with the backup vocalists?
Pilots use flight simulators to prepare for possible turbulence and work out problems before they’re in the air putting everyone’s lives at risk. What about treating rehearsals as show simulators instead of just hasty run-throughs to make sure the take offs and landings are ok? Other performing artists call this a dress rehearsal and they actually run the show as if the audience is there and deal with any problems that arise in real time.
But that’s too much pressure for most bands that just run the songs the night before the show (not making it through some without crashing and starting over in the middle) and then wing it on stage the next night. “Take offs and landings ok? That’s all that matters. Let’s go in there and just start rockin’!”
Imagine if your pilot thought that!
For that reason, I don’t like that Austin-tacious laid-back way of rehearsing. Even nailing your songs in rehearsal isn’t like being on stage. Rehearsal turbulence isn’t real. Your nerves and energy level aren’t what they are on stage. How often do you come off stage thinking, “that was a solid performance. I deserve a treat!!”? If you’re like most musicians, it’s more likely that you focus on what went wrong. So why not fix it before the real flight? Before you fly your flight crew and passengers into turbulence you know is out there?
I suggest that once your take offs and landings are solid, stop focusing on running whoel songs and shift to fixing the 10 seconds in the middle that always fall apart. Zero in on your trouble spots, turn down and slow down enough that you can pinpoint the problem, use a metronome click through your PA so everyone can hear it if you feel like your rushing/dragging and then play it CORRECTLY as a group over and over until you play right more often than you play it wrong. Increase the tempo and keep playing it till you play it right every time. This could take many rehearsals.
I write all this at the risk of being told what the guys in Steers told me over a decade ago —- that I care too much and no one’s going to put in that kind of time. My response – the pilot can never care too much about the experience of the passengers if he/she expects to keep them in the seats.
Plus, if you stop willingly sucking in front of people, they won’t think you suck. What a concept!