I’ve heard it said that “Life is not a dress rehearsal!”, and I guess I agree with it in the sense that it was intended. Too often we can get caught up in the notion that we shouldn’t do something unless we are fully prepared, and then find ourselves paralyzed by the fact that there is always a little bit more you could do to prepare. In Eric Brende’s book Better Off he tells a Minimite farmer that he and his fellow college students would often spend long years and piles of money to be trained in fields other than the ones they found themselves working in. The farmer’s response was to quote a verse:
He who studies, studies, studies
And does not practice what he knows
Is like one who plows, plows, plows
And never sows.
Fair enough. But I think that in another very real sense we ought to view all of life as a dress rehearsal, that is, as we practice what we know we should at the same time be studying, not just for the next time we will need to practice that thing but to benefit from whatever general things an experience can teach us.
Since January Chris and I have been playing music along with Jerome Lange at the Bread of Life Cafe, every Friday night from 5:30pm to 8:30pm. We play for tips, and more often than not the management will make a fairly generous contribution to the tip basket. Even split three ways the bills in the basket are appreciated, but if we were only playing for the money it probably wouldn’t have been enough to keep us coming back for nine months.
But we aren’t playing for the money. Instead, Chris and I sometimes joke about how pleasant it is to be paid to practice. And that’s how we view the time at the Bread of Life. We don’t prepare beforehand, and any new songs we come with were learned for some other reason. Unlike any other place we play, we set up a music stand for our lyric book, which now contains about 400 songs; normally I’m turned off by music stands, since they say to me that the singer was too lazy to learn the words, but at the Bread of Life I want to be able to vary the songlist significantly from week to week without running through them at home, and although we can usually remember the accompaniment I can’t always remember the words cold.
And so our time at the Bread of Life becomes very much a practice session for us. Not a full-blown one, where we might stop a song in the middle to work out a passage, or talk at length about how to do the song. But I will often take a brief moment after a song to talk with Chris about what to do next, or what new things to try on the song coming up. And when we’re trying new things with a song, or resurrecting a song we haven’t played in awhile, the resulting performance can be, well, a bit rough—certainly not as polished as we would want it to be for a paying audience—but we try not to be so adventurous that the quality drops to an embarrassing point.
I think the tradeoffs we make are fair. We don’t present a polished stage performance, but that isn’t what folks at the Bread of Life came for anyway; they came to eat their food and have their conversations and enjoy or ignore the music as they see fit. Our less-than-polished performances are more than adequate for that. Meanwhile, the resulting flexibility is what keeps us coming back; we have the opportunity to try new things before a live audience, to try to catch the attention of folks who are only half-listening to us, to practice recovering from mistakes, to think as much about how we sound as about how the listeners are responding. If that flexibility weren’t there, if we had to give a polished performance every time, I think the grind would have led us to give up that gig long ago. Instead we have found ways to redeem the time, and it keeps us willing and sometimes even eager to go back for another Friday.
Perhaps that’s the point I’m hoping to make in this piece: in any situation, but especially in less than ideal ones, it’s good to redeem the time by finding opportunities to practice useful things, things that quite often will be secondary to the situation. Sometimes we’ve played in venues with extremely bad sound systems, where we knew that the final result will be poor no matter what we do; so we took the chance to experiment with the microphones, we looked for ways to keep in time and on pitch when we couldn’t hear one another very well, and—especially!—we practiced smiling and carrying ourselves so that our misery wasn’t communicated to the audience. Sometimes we’ve been thrown together with musicians whose styles and skills don’t mesh well with ours, and we knew the music would be hash no matter what we did; so we looked for ways to mesh with them, to encourage them, to increase their enjoyment, to put our own self-importance on the shelf.
The examples I’ve given are based on our musical experiences, but I think they apply to all of life. When I find myself somewhere that I’d rather not be or doing something I’d rather not do, I scramble to find ways to redeem the time by practicing things I need to practice. Chief among them is choking down any resentment about the situation, usually by forcing myself to see how low on the scale of importance my unhappiness sits. Then I start zeroing in on what is making me unhappy. If it is dealing with unpleasant people, I practice ways to make dealing with them less unpleasant. If it is not having been given the tools to do the job I’ve been asked to do, I practice ways to make that clear while staying kind and loving. If it’s because I’ve failed to prepare properly, I practice ways to make it clear that I accept the blame and will do all I can to make things right, now or later.
And when I say practice, I mean that I don’t let the desire for a clean and certain resolution limit the things I will consider doing. As long as failure won’t lead to calamity, I will take the opportunity to risk a new way of responding to a situation, because there is no better time to learn whether that way is a better one. Sometimes you can’t risk that, but usually you can. And sometimes you will find a new and better way, one you can master and internalize, one that will make you a slightly better person.