By Laurel Thomsen
As the saying goes, mistakes happen, but when you’ve worked hard to prepare a piece, it’s an important performance or audition, or it’s a spot in the music you usually nail without any issue, the effects of a noticeable flub can be devastating. You can’t avoid mistakes entirely, but you can minimize their frequency and the impact they have on you and your audience.
While some mistakes are random flukes, most are either caused by performance anxiety or issues that might have been avoided had the preparation of the music, the performance, or both happened a bit differently.
The Benefits of Plowing Ahead
Most teachers and performance coaches recommend that a performer continue on after a mistake as if nothing happened. Don’t grimace. Never miss the next beat. Especially when performing with a larger ensemble, it’s usually not necessary or realistic for the whole show to stop because of a poorly calibrated shift or a missed run.
The theory is that the average audience member won’t notice the little details you notice, and if you don’t draw attention to a mistake, no one will think anything was wrong. From personal experience I can say this is true most of the time. We can definitely be our own worst critics. At times over the years I’ve found myself watching video of a performance, grimacing before the moment when I’ll hear that note I thought I played out of tune or the rhythm I thought I botched, and then that moment passes without much, if anything, sounding amiss.
With an instrument close to your ears and intimate knowledge of every nuance in your pieces, you hear every detail as if under a microscope. Once out in the hall, and especially with an ensemble or orchestra, many of these small details are lost, for better or worse.
The Benefits of Recognizing a Mistake
It can be difficult to recover quickly from major issues, like forgetting the music entirely. Sometimes situations may require putting the performance on pause, which usually means needing to make some sort of admission to the audience.
Several years ago I was impressed by how a songwriter handled forgetting her lyrics in concert. She was about to start a verse after her instrumental break, but kept strumming her guitar as she admitted she had no idea what the next words were, flashing an adorable, sheepish grin. Everyone laughed along with her. The moment was so honest and humanizing. A few bars later, still strumming through the chord progression, she announced that she’d remembered, that maybe she actually liked the slightly longer instrumental better, which made everyone laugh again, and on the next round of the progression she continued singing. I loved how she brought the audience into that moment and kept the party going.
When a mistake is handled with finesse, maybe even some humor, we get to see a side of the performer we don’t usually get to see, giving these moments the potential to actually contribute positively to a performance.
Since violinist Hilary Hahn started sharing videos of her following through on her 100-days-of-practice goal last year, I’ve started sharing some of her videos with my students, especially the adult amateurs who hold favorite soloists on high pedestals and listen intensely to copious “perfect” recordings of all the great virtuosos. Hearing Hahn make a few mistakes and have to repeat material over and over in her practice, just like they do, has been very encouraging for these students, and if anything, they respect her more for showing us her human side as well as her continued dedication to her playing.
Intelligent Piece Preparation
Every so often I’ll get an email or Skype contact from a desperate parent or adult student, hoping I can squeeze in a few emergency lessons before an upcoming audition or performance. They are sometimes without a teacher, maybe in a remote corner of the globe, and I’m amazed at how often they are still not sure what fingerings and bowings they’ll be using just a week or two before the big day. Sometimes we simply don’t have much preparation time, but even then, much of this stress could be easily avoided by using a preparation timeline. I recommend the following 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):
Find and commit to fingerings throughout the entire piece, scale, or excerpt. Write them down even if you think you’ll remember them.
Day 1 or 2
Make decisions about bowings and write in anything needed beyond what is printed.
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. As you improve upon the progress of each round, this method helps the brain to stay engaged and builds long-term memory pathways. Taking a break and coming back for a few more rounds can increase your chances of retaining your progress even more.
Once all the bracketed passages show consistent playability, continue practicing them in every session. 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. Once you are close to performance tempo, start practicing with accompaniment if you’ll be performing with it.
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.
The second half of your preparation timeline should be actual performance preparation. I’m amazed at how infrequently this part makes it into the preparation process. 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. Other activities might include playing for family and friends, busking (playing on the street, though be sure to check local ordinances first), or playing in a retirement home or elementary school.
It can also be helpful to practice under the conditions that might occur during a performance, such as a case of nerves, distractions, and acoustics that are different from what you’re used to. Noa Kageyama, creator of the Bulletproof Musician blog and performance psychologist at the Juilliard School, recommends jumping jacks or other forms of aerobic exercise right before a practice run of your performance piece in order to simulate the racing heartbeat and sweaty palms you might experience during the actual performance.
He also suggests inviting over a “distracting audience.” Tell your friends to unwrap candy, cough, talk, or just look bored or displeased, and practice getting through the music anyway. And, 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.
Focus & Intention
Your general state of mind has a huge impact on your speed of recovery after a mistake. Beyond your diligent performance preparation, harnessing mind power can also help you avoid mistakes altogether.
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. Rather than going into a performance thinking “I hope I don’t miss the shift in m. 65” (which is often the kind of thought that becomes the seed for a mistake), you need to create a bigger picture for the music and direct your energy into the feelings you wish to share.
Focus is a skill that goes hand in hand with intention. Performers can benefit from learning to stay more present and to practice ignoring derailing thought patterns. High-functioning individuals of many disciplines report success using meditation to train the mind to stay more calm and focused. I personally enjoy Insight Timer, an app available for both iOS and Android devices. It’s free and hosts over 10,000 guided meditations, as well as a timer to use for solo meditation practices. Mindfulness Meditation and Yoga Nidra are two of my personal favorite, non-denominational practices to help musicians stay more positive and centered while performing, and even just a few minutes each day can have a positive impact over time.
This article originally appeared in the October 2018 issue of Strings magazine.