'I'm sorry, I'm so nervous'

December 11, 2016 at 09:28 PM · Nobel Prize Award Ceremony: A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall

Patti Smith asked orchestra to re-start after stumbling midway through A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall.

What would you do in a similar situation?

Have you ever witnessed a violin player doing the same?

Replies (30)

December 11, 2016 at 10:16 PM · I once witnessed a couple of professionals in a local concert have two abortive attempts at starting the 3rd movement of the Bach Double before they got it right on the third go. Mind you, that movement, with its close canonic entries, can be unforgiving of the slightest lapse.

Many decades ago I was listening on the radio ("wireless" in those far-off times, so that dates me) to a live performance by the old BBC Third Programme of an impenetrable orchestral piece by one of the madder modern European composers, when it thankfully stopped after about 10 minutes. There was no response from the studio audience but a short silence and then a slightly embarrassed announcement from the conductor to the effect that he was sorry about that (whatever "that" was - it was never explained) but they'd restart. Which they did, and 15 minutes later it came to what I suppose was its proper closure, followed by grateful applause from the audience, indicating that the conductor must have stopped conducting, turned round and bowed to them. I couldn't tell the difference between the 10 minute fragment and the 15 minute complete piece, apart from the time difference.

Much more recently, I was in the orchestra when a brilliant young soloist in the Schumann piano concerto had an unaccountable memory lapse halfway through the last movement and had to stop. He got up, looked at the score with the conductor, and then we restarted the last movement, this time with no problems.

Sometimes a stop and restart is the only thing to do; mistakes can happen in the best families.

December 11, 2016 at 10:32 PM · I read about Patti Smith's lapse and thought: "How wonderfully human." We live in a world where most music is not only recorded but edited to the point of whatever the producer considers perfection. We hold live performers to that same standard of perfection and get all kinds of upset when we realize they made a mistake. Noted that most of us could not match their performance but even so, we expect them to live up to a standard set by the recording industry.

I remember my first time in the multi-generational community orchestra where I played for decades. The conductor pointed out that we were going to make mistakes and that was just fine. We were there to learn, make music and have fun. We worked hard and practiced and usually did a good rendition of the music. To be sure we had the occasional unplanned "solo" along with missed notes and cues during performances but we entertained our forgiving audience and had fun. We never stopped to start over but we did scramble to get back together more than a few times.

To make music is a human endeavor and all humans are flawed so nothing human is perfect.

December 11, 2016 at 10:35 PM · I think it is amazing that gifted soloists can memorize a half hour piece, and then go on to play a difficult encore afterward. I have such a hard time memorizing just one page of material. And then if a performer has a memory lapse and keeps his sang froid on a stage in front of a thousand people...

December 12, 2016 at 01:17 PM · Jascha Heifetz - yes HEIFETZ! - once 'went up' (had a bad memory slip) early on in a concerto performance. He stopped and asked the conductor that they start again. "I lost my place", admitted the "Great H"!

Once Fritz Kreisler was giving a recital in Carnegie Hall. At one point he had a memory slip. He tried to improvise his way out of it but soon ran into trouble and knew that he couldn't continue much longer w.o. stopping. He sidled up close to his pianist and whispered "For God sake, where are we?" Said the pianist "We're in Carnegie Hall!". I don't know the rest of that story but I suspect that those may have been the last words that pianist uttered while still in the employ of Mr. Kreisler.

December 12, 2016 at 02:00 PM · Is that a true story ? :)

December 12, 2016 at 02:12 PM · True or not, Raphael always has the best stories. There are stories of top-caliber pianists having huge blackouts too. And I had this happen to me in a competition -- within the first 16 bars of the Haydn G Major Violin Concerto. So I do sympathize -- it doesn't have to be hard music.

December 12, 2016 at 05:59 PM · Honestly, it's just music. Stop and restart. I did not personally see it, but I know Hilary Hahn did this at the debut of the Higdon Concerto in Indianapolis.

December 12, 2016 at 06:06 PM · And then there are other "stoppages" due not to memory lapse but physical things like page turns going dramatically wrong. That happened to me in my youth when I was playing the first movement of Beethoven's 5th cello sonata in a concert. My pianist inadvertently turned over two pages, realised something was very wrong two or three bars later, and turned back two pages, by which time the damage was done, and so we had to restart.

December 12, 2016 at 06:13 PM · I remember reading a story decades ago about a very young (that is, age 11 or 12) Yehudi Menuhin. Apparently, he was playing the (I think) Brahms Violin Concerto with a major orchestra (I don't remember which one or who the conductor was). In the middle of a passage, he blanked out and simply stopped playing. Apparently, the conductor turned to the audience and said (sympathetically) something like: "Hey, he's only a kid." Anyway, Menuhin's memory resumed, and they picked up where they left off.



PS. Sorry I blanked out on the details.

December 12, 2016 at 08:17 PM ·

I think it shows a lot of character for people to own their mistakes and admit to being nervous. Who doesn't get nervous or make mistakes at times? It makes people very relatable, and when they overcome their situation and follow up with the great performance, their accomplishment is that much greater, to my mind,

Mistakes can be the best learning tools.

"The man who never makes enny blunders seldum makes enny good hits." - Josh Billings, 1874

December 12, 2016 at 08:25 PM · It's always good if you can say something funny to the audience when you have a memory lapse. My standard line is, "It's okay. I have tenure."

December 12, 2016 at 08:51 PM · I have never, ever made a mistake!!! (I thought I did once, but I was wrong)



December 12, 2016 at 08:59 PM · Haha Mr. Marcus.

December 12, 2016 at 09:11 PM · "I think it is amazing that gifted soloists can memorize a half hour piece, and then go on to play a difficult encore afterward. I have such a hard time memorizing just one page of material. And then if a performer has a memory lapse and keeps his sang froid on a stage in front of a thousand people... "

I think there is more muscle memory than "actual" memory. What I mean by this is that most people don't have full memory of how the score goes, but remember how they must play it. When a person depends on the first, missing a few notes can vanish from memory whatever comes after, making impossible to hear what everyone is playing and take it from there.

December 12, 2016 at 09:13 PM · Oh, I really feel for her!

December 12, 2016 at 10:22 PM · Thank you all!

I am now officially allowed to stop playing next time I make a mistake.

By the way, is it not odd that Mr. Dylan did not appear in person to accept the Nobel price?

December 13, 2016 at 03:07 AM · Brian - is which one true, the Heifetz or Kreisler story? I've read so much and heard so much over the years that I can't always cite chapter and verse. But I recall them both as being presented as true stories. And thanks, Paul! As they say in Italian "se non è vero, è ben trovato" (whether true or not, it's well-told)

December 13, 2016 at 03:26 AM · Sander I like the corollary argument: I used to be conceited, but now I'm perfect.

December 13, 2016 at 08:39 AM · Hilary H. in Paris playing Mozart G major sonata missed the repeat, stopped and started all over again. That was about six years ago.

December 13, 2016 at 11:59 AM · I once missed a repeat in, I think a Handel or Leclare Sonata. The pianist stopped and announced to the audience: "This is what happens when one repeats and the other doesn't." I was so out of it I thought it was HER mistake. But I later realized and apologized to her.

Milstein admitted to making memory mistakes in Bach. We're all human

Now I found a citation for my Kreisler story above but I think I heard it elsewhere as well: In the excellent book, "Fritz Kreisler, Love's Sorrow, Love's Joy", Amy Biancolli cites the story on p.243-244. It was told to her by the noted senior NY Times music critic, Harold Schonberg. Where he got it, he didn't say. In this version it was a special charity concert with Rachmaninov at the piano and the piece was the Kreutzer sonata. It does make more sense that only someone of Rachmaninov's eminence would have the nerve to say that to Kreisler.

But years later, when Schonberg interviewed Kreisler, he asked him about that story. Kreisler acted like he never heard it before but thought it was very funny. However, he denied that it ever happened. But, as Biancolli thoroughly documents elsewhere in the book, Kreisler was (in)famous for fibbing. So again, se non e vero, ill ben trovato!

December 13, 2016 at 01:29 PM · In fact, after laughing a great deal, Kreisler said, "in the first place, Sergei and I always gave our benefit recitals at the Metropolitan Opera House. And in the second place," [drawing himself up] "I NEVER got lost in the Kreutzer Sonata."

December 13, 2016 at 02:07 PM · It never failed to amaze me how some of my adult students would think that professionals don't make mistakes. Uh, they do. Now, maybe it's not a mistake that an amateur would hear. But I don't remember the last time I went to a symphony and did not hear even one mistake, broadly defined to include things like less-than-perfect tone or tiny intonation inaccuracies. I have heard concertmasters paid in the six figures flub solos (subtly). One time I even heard someone (I won't name names) play the same solo out of tune *three times* in performance. I actually was a little shocked by that one. Once can be chalked up to "we're all human," but then you're supposed to fix it the next time around.

December 13, 2016 at 08:49 PM · It is interesting to read what Aristotle wrote about perfection:

"That is perfect which is complete, which contains all the requisite parts, which is so good that nothing of the kind could be better, and which has attained its purpose."

It seems to me that this definition leaves room for something even better to come along. But then again, what did Aristotle know about violin playing?

At this point, I keep coming back to the recordings of Zino Francescatti, who apparently came from and left us no "school." This is probably since (as you may already know) his parents were his only teachers, and his father was a pupil of Camilio Sivori, who was the only "regular" pupil of Paganini. So perhaps when we hear Francescatti, we may be listening to at least a tiny bit of what Pagainini may have actually sounded like. Who knows?

But, to me Francescatti's playing is "perfect" in Aristotle's terms. It is playing that is complete, contains all the requisite parts, which is so good in it's particular "voice" and interpretive perspective that one cannot imagine anything better, and which has achieved its purpose.

And this is irrespective of who plays technically "better," or who has a wider vibrato or tone, or whatever.

In its own terms, Francescatti's playing is "perfect" (at least, to me). I wonder how he handled his being "nervous" and his mistakes (there had to be at least a few, although I never heard any the one and only time I heard him in person).



December 14, 2016 at 08:12 AM · I like that concept of "perfect"!

December 15, 2016 at 03:15 AM · Here is a story in Patti Smith just published in the New Yorker about that experience.

December 17, 2016 at 03:30 PM · Sir Michael Tippett's second symphony gained a degree of notoreity when its first performance broke down after a few bars. The conductor (Sir Adrian Boult, no less) simply turned to the audience, apologised, accepted the blame and restarted. In this instance it was not a violinist who broke down, but the concertmaster did get the blame in some quarters for tampering with the (extremely difficult?) violin parts to make them easier(!). Maybe a case of the composer knows best?

Perhaps I've been lucky, but in all my years of concertgoing I can recall only one breakdown by a top soloist or orchestra, (and a couple of obvious memory lapses) - which reflects very well on the amazingly high standard of professional playing. In this instance the soloist in the Tchaikovsky concerto came unstuck, and just waited a couple of seconds for a convenient point to resume, while the orchestra carried on. A casual listener would hardly have noticed.

I was once playing in in a non-professional performance of Mahler 1. There was a breakdown in the finale. The conductor stopped, called out the last rehearsal letter and resumed with minimal disruption.

So it does happen, and doesn't have to be a big deal.

Raphael - I love the Kreisler story. If it's not true it deserves to be.

December 17, 2016 at 06:07 PM · I was so moved watching the YouTube link of Patti Smith's performance. Even through a performance that she thought was a failure, tears were still shed. She still touched lives.

December 17, 2016 at 08:32 PM · Some more recollections from the depths of my memory,

I was in the cello section in a performance of the Elgar cello concerto by an experienced soloist who started to have a memory lapse halfway through the last movement. The conductor was instantly on the ball and held out his score in front of her for a few seconds with his left hand while he continued conducting with the right. She recovered immediately and the performance finished as per script. The interesting thing is that only the first desks of the violins and cellos noticed what had happened, not the rest of the orchestra or anyone in the audience. A moral there somewhere.

Again, when I was in the cello section in Tchaikovsky's 1st piano concerto, a wood-wind player missed an important cue in the last movement, thereby sending the soloist off-track. She stopped. The conductor halted the orchestra, and we restarted at the previous rehearsal letter, continuing to a successful conclusion. There again, I'm betting that whole tracts of the audience didn't notice.

The oddest thing that happened to me in a concert many years ago was when the whole of the cello section simultaneously missed out the penultimate line of a Haydn symphony, jumping to the last line and finishing about 8 bars or so ahead of the rest of the orchestra. Some of us fortunately managed to get our wits together enough to play the last two or three bars and finish with the orchestra. That was a mystery at the time and today I still have no idea how it happened. The only thing I can be sure about is that there were no page turns involved and the copies were clearly printed with no deletions marked.

December 17, 2016 at 08:42 PM · ... another explanation is that the rest of the orchestra was 8 bars late!

December 17, 2016 at 10:13 PM · Rocky, well, possibly but unlikely. Or perhaps there was a repeated section elsewhere in the orchestra that wasn't in the cello part, but anyway that would have been picked up in rehearsal. So, in a case like this when all else fails the buck must stop on the conductor's podium ;)

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