You never know what will happen during a live musical performance—that’s part of what makes it exciting for the audience, but also what can make it scary for the performers. Here are some tips on how to prepare for live performances as a string player to avoid making mistakes onstage, as well as what to do if one should happen.
How to Prepare to Help Avoid Mistakes Onstage
Here is a process for the first half of the amount of time you have to prepare (i.e. if you have two months, spend the first month on this list in the following order). Read more detail about how to prepare for a performance in this article by Laurel Thomsen.
- Day 1, 2, or 3: Play through the entire piece at a metronome speed you can keep up with. Mark anything that you aren’t playing easily and automatically: accidentals, articulations, dynamics, etc. Most importantly, bracket all the sections that are the most difficult and identify the root cause of each difficulty—a shift, a chromatic fingering, a strange bowing, etc. Make a list of all these measure numbers and their problems.
- Subsequent days or weeks: Practice the bracketed sections multiple times with the metronome, gradually bumping up to performance tempo. Rather than practice each section to perfection before moving to the next, practice in a loop, making moderate progress with each section, moving on to the next one, and eventually doing the whole loop of sections a few more times. Once you’re done with them for that practice session, practice the entire piece with the metronome at an achievable speed, gradually increasing to performance tempo over time. Initially, focus on just one or two elements at a time, starting with intonation, rhythm, tone, and bowings. Next, articulations and dynamics. Finally, more nuanced vibrato, bowing, etc.
- Final days or weeks: Practice playing the piece from memory even if it’s not a requirement for the audition or performance to help instill your learning and build musicality.
- Practice performing: The second half of your preparation timeline should be actual performance preparation. An easy performance outlet might be to video or audio record yourself, which can simulate some of the nerves you might feel on performance day while giving you honest feedback. Since acoustics are different everywhere you go, practice in as many spots as you can to avoid being thrown off by a dead hall or an overly reverberant one—small rooms, big rooms, bathrooms, outside, places with a lot of carpet and furniture to absorb sound, and places with wood and other hard surfaces to reflect it.
- Practice with intention: Intention is a key element to any successful performance. What are the emotions behind the notes? What do you wish to convey? Spending time discovering the “storyline” of the music helps you internalize it, developing not just technical prowess, but artistry, and gives you a more holistic goal to focus on and get back to if something doesn’t go as planned.
How to Recover After an Onstage Mistake
Any player who’s put in a good amount of time onstage will most likely have a collection of train wrecks to tell about—moments that resulted in the creation of strategies for being unflappable when things fall apart before an audience. Here’s what to do if something goes wrong. (Read more stories about musicians recovering from onstage mistakes in this article.)
Fred Loberg-Holm, a self-described anti-cellist, composer, and improviser in Chicago, offers some fresh perspectives on mistakes:
“As an improviser, I think there’s no wrong note—just a wrong second note. You’re only ever a half-step away from a right note, so a note that will correct a wrong one is always close at hand… Sometimes you just have to keep moving forward and doing the best you can in an ensemble setting—and accept the mistakes you’re making in doing so.”
Rachel Barringer is a Boston-based cellist who specializes in new music. Here, she recalls an unfortunate recital situation:
“When I was an undergrad, I was performing the basso continuo part on cello with a singer and harpsichordist for the singer’s recital. Since I was reading off the score, I somehow lost my place and could not find where we were at all. So I casually stopped playing, kept my poker face, waited about 30 seconds, found my place in the score, and went on. My heart was pounding, my face felt hot, and I was mortified! But it turns out that no one knew except the singer and harpsichordist, and it was not even that bad.”