Practice Makes Better

When I was growing up, my father was the drummer in a wedding and Bar Mitzvah band. At their peak the band played 60-70 gigs a year, mostly on weekends. That’s a lot of challah.

I used to go on gigs with him. I’d don my little tux and learn the ropes of the whole “I’m with the band” ethos: getting there early to see social halls and gymnasiums transformed into luxurious party rooms, scoring franks in a blanket1 and scarfing them out by a loading dock, watch grown adults act like children whining about the music being too loud, etc. My dad let me play all manor of small instruments, like the tambourine or maracas, anything that made a bit of noise but wouldn’t bring down the whole affair if I screwed up.

Once I got older, it was time to learn my own instrument. At first I tried the drums, but I quit after only a few lessons.2 Instead I chose what I (correctly) believed to be the coolest of all instruments: the saxophone. In fourth grade I started playing alto sax.3 Once I was able to make it through a freilach, I started bringing it with me to gigs.

Now, I was pretty good. I could read the music and feel the beat, plus these were Jewish standards I grew up with, so all it took was a phrase or two for me to get in the groove and start noodling. In our basement, playing along with a cassette tape, I could power through most of the band’s regular set. It was in public that I had trouble.

I guess you could say I had stage fright. The trouble with playing Bar Mitzvahs, as I explained to my father, was that I was worried I would ruin the party. If I missed a note I would probably just stop, but what if I started honking nonsense? Wouldn’t it cause some kind of aural damage to the guests and possibly spoil an otherwise joyous occasion?

My dad told me to calm down and listen to the keyboardist play a song. He was one of my dad’s childhood friends and part of the reason the band had survived three decades. In my eyes, he was everything a keyboardist should be and more. But I took a moment to listen closely to his performance and noticed something: he messed up, a lot. He’d miss notes or fat-finger some extra keys. His voice was decent but inconsistent and had a limited range; if ever he had to hold a note, he’d wobble in and out of tune. But if he made a mistake he’d just keep going and get back on track.

From then on, I got a little bolder with how many songs I would play at events, and I started playing louder. I even went so far as to start improvising, jazzing up the hora just a bit. When I made mistakes I kept going, and as a result I became a better musician.

Everything I do is a process. This site is a process. I will fail many times, but what’s important is what I do with those failures. On the sax, I learned to keep going into the next phrase and get better. If I stopped playing, then I stopped being a part of the band, and that was always the bigger failure.

  1. Never pigs in a blanket at Jewish functions. ↩︎

  2. I found paradiddles tiresome, but I do play the drums, only as well as someone who didn’t take lessons. ↩︎

  3. I can still play, but in general I don’t, a fact I constantly regret. Perhaps I should break it out again and challenge David Sparks to a duel. ↩︎