People often ask me how Twisted Sister can put out such a consistently excellent live show, regardless of what's going on with us. The answer is simple. Practice and lots of it.
But I never appreciated what all that practice means until our first show after our drummer, A.J. Pero, died.
Since our very first show as a band, in March 1973, I have kept a running log of our performances and rehearsals. I recently added them up. They come to almost 10,000 hours. That means we have more than 10,000 hours of muscle memory--or in our case, performance memory. Malcolm Gladwell was absolutely correct. That practice has made us pretty bulletproof. The live show has always been our bread and butter (the core product of our business). We have had to perform many times in the face of really depressing business news, but we have learned to shrug it off, put on the game face, get into a zone--a zone created by all that practice and performance time--and carry the f*ck on.
That practice, and the muscle and performance memory it created, was never more evident than in the months after A.J. died.
We played our first show with a new drummer, Mike Portnoy (a legend, and we couldn't have asked for a better replacement), at The Joint in the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, in June. It was, of course, a bittersweet experience and very emotional for everyone. But our longtime fans told us we played with more passion than they had ever seen. Like we were totally in control.
That's not how I felt. Not at all.
The truth is, these days, we only play about a dozen shows a year, almost always between May and August. It means that we are off doing other things the other nine months of the year. We usually only run over the songs once at a rehearsal. I am always feeling just a little queasy and unsure. That's why, before we go into our first rehearsals, sometime in April, I'm gripped with anxiety. But this time, I was also anxious about a new drummer who had only three rehearsals to learn not just the music but also the pacing of the show; the fact that we were doing a live recording for DVD; multiple bands being on the same bill with us (their equipment changes can always cause problems); and special effects, flames, sparklers, and explosions that will possibly light you on fire if you stand in the wrong place. Plus, I'm not just a guitar player--I'm the manager of the band, with a long mental checklist. More important, I was really sad that A.J. wasn't up there with us.
Here is my confession. There were just too many unknowns this time. Too many potential areas of disruption. Too much emotion. Because it was the first show of the year, I just couldn't get lost in the performance. My mind was overwhelmed by the confluence of information. And I was still dealing with my own emotions about this first show without A.J.
So what did I do? I consciously let go. I set my brain on autopilot and let the songs flow out. I kept in the back of my mind an idea of what I would need to do if something really went out of control. But I tried not to think about it, and instead, I relied on my ability to do something I'd done for more than 10,000 hours.
And … nothing bad happened. The show went on about as smoothly as I could have hoped.
This is what separates the big boys from the also-rans. The confidence--in our case, forged in the fires of the live club circuit -- that we could always deliver, no matter what was thrown at us, is burned into our DNA. As long as we want to do it, it will be done at the highest levels.
The same is true for companies and entrepreneurs. For you or your company to be great, nothing can ever present an obstacle to excellence. You need to practice until you've got muscle memory. You can't stop Twisted Sister. And you can't stop a great company when you have a great foundation.