In our new series for beginners, Harold Heath looks at how not to learn the wrong lesson from your mistakes
This month, we’re launching a new column, full of tips and stories about what it’s like when you first begin DJing and playing out. To kick the series off, we’re going to go deep and talk about DJs, psychology, and the principle of cause and effect.
In the 1960s, behavioural psychologist BF Skinner carried out a remarkable experiment, in which he managed to make pigeons "superstitious". He did this by tricking them into believing that something they did - a weird twitch or random movement - had triggered the appearance of food. So he’d lock a pigeon in a box and release food pellets at regular intervals. After a while, he’d open the box and find the pigeon walking sideways, turning three times anti-clockwise, or performing some other random activity - because last time it did it, a food pellet appeared, and so it attributed the appearance of food to walking sideways. He pranked those pigeons good! But Skinner wasn’t doing this to film the poor, hapless birds and put them up on Reddit for megalolz. He was interested in the psychology of behaviour, the idea of superstitions, and how we often make false assumptions about the causes and effects of our actions.
DJs can be a lot like Skinner’s superstitious pigeons. They turn up at a party or nightclub, play a set to a packed room, and have a great gig. Then they walk away convinced that it was the fact that they used the flanger on every other mix that really nailed it, while the truth is that the party was a success despite their best efforts to cause death-by-flanger. Or that when they accidentally left the CDJ loop function on and let a four-bar kick drum loop for eight minutes, that was the clincher, and they’ll definitely do that next time.
There was a DJ/promoter I used to work with in Eastern Europe - let’s call him Hans. He still owes me money from the last time I played for him, and he once got so pissed at a party that he tried to kick me off the decks 10 minutes into my set, after having flown me over to play. Now, when Hans DJ’d, he used to play endless remixes of Strings Of Life, and relied heavily on the old DJ trick of cutting out the bass towards the end of the bar. Most DJs then slam the EQ back in again, providing a little lift for the punters as the low-end hits them. But Hans used to miss his cue to drop the bass back in, and would then have to leave the bass out for another eight bars.
He was always doing this, sometimes two or three times in a row, and at the time I assumed that it was an alcohol-induced mistake. But then he once told me that one of the things people loved about his DJing was how he “was able to ride the EQ for minutes at a time’’. Yet I saw all those people struggle through his mixes: they were generally kind, warm and generous, and so carried on dancing when he was ruining Strings Of Life. And from numerous repetitions of this communal act of kindness, Hans had ‘learnt’ that when he played Strings Of Life and dropped the bass out randomly for a minute or two, he always had a good gig.
The upshot of this, for DJs who are starting out, is that your first few gigs may well be pretty intense experiences, either good or bad. You’ll be pumped full of adrenaline, you’ll briefly forget what the volume controls on the mixer do, and you may well find yourself staring dumbstruck at the names of all your lovingly curated tracks, none of which you can now remember. You may even find, when you take a nervous swig your drink, that your hands are slightly shaking.
It would be completely normal for someone who had never DJ'd to a packed club before to go into a low-level fight-or-flight response, and when this happens, your brain won’t be devoting any of its processing power to remembering stuff. So it’s well worth checking in with your mates who were there as to what actually happened during the night, because they’ll have a far more objective idea of how the evening played out. Otherwise your brain may start to act like a pigeon and mistakenly attribute your DJing success to the fact that you'd worked out an interpretive dance routine for every single track you played.
Words: Harold Heath Pics: Pixabay/Creative Commons