"Errors are inevitable, but suffering as a result of them is optional."
–The Musician’s Way, p. 193
Of all the skills I teach to aspiring performers, some of the toughest ones for them to master surround the emotional aspects of handling on-stage mistakes.
Some students will agonize over slips: a single misshapen note can set off art-crushing aggravation.
In contrast, we veteran musicians stay in the moment when glitches occur – we keep the music flowing and the magic happening.
To help rising performers become adept error-handlers, besides advising them in ways to prepare for concerts and improvise through flubs, I emphasize three fundamental concepts.
1. Errors are not failures
A minor on-stage mistake doesn’t bar listeners from enjoying the larger phrase.
If we fudge a note but keep up the musical intensity, listeners stay immersed in the music and don’t notice the fault.
Even when bigger mishaps occur – say, someone misses an entrance or has a memory lapse – we can still keep the mood alive and show the audience a good time.
Failures, in contrast, result in enduring loss: a driver who causes a fatal car crash fails as a driver and citizen.
In sum, “An on-stage error can’t become a failure unless a musician turns it into one.” (The Musician’s Way, p. 192)
2. Errors are not shameful
Musicians who confuse errors with failures often harbor shame too.
Not only do they view slips as disasters but also conclude that their botched notes prove that they’re untalented.
Of course, mistakes aren’t fun. We might even feel guilty if our blunder alters a special moment in show.
But there’s a world of difference between guilt and shame.
It’s human nature for us to feel guilty when we judge our actions to be inferior; for instance, if we accidentally damage a colleague's instrument.
People who feel shame, though, believe their mistakes indicate that they are inferior.
In truth, every musician, no matter how advanced, makes errors on stage (I certainly commit my share).
As we build up our abilities, we make fewer and smaller errors, and we mask them more gracefully.
Nonetheless, our errors alert us to things we need to learn, so, if we treat them positively, they actually aid our development – many can even lead us to creative breakthroughs.
3. Errors are information
When we rid ourselves of any negative emotional baggage associated with errors, we can then see them for what they are: information.
Errors don’t come with emotional strings unless we strap them on.
Memory slip? Ad-lib through it, and then explore the likely causes in practice. By filling gaps in your memorization procedures, your stage power grows.
I've come to realize that one of my advantages as a performer isn’t just my decades of experience but also that I have no fear of mistakes.
Over the years, I've learned how to prepare for concerts, and I trust in my ability to deliver moving performances no matter what comes up.
I also know that, with intelligent work, any music lover can acquire those same skills.
See pages 190-196 of The Musician’s Way for a comprehensive approach to handling the musical and psychological aspects of performance errors. A version of this article first appeared on The Musician’s Way Blog.
© 2011 Gerald Klickstein
"Oops!" photo © Gunnar Pippel, licensed from Shutterstock.com
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