The psychology of making faces when making a mistake
We see it time and time again in students. Sometimes even professionals believe it or not. A note which is slightly off, and all of a sudden, a grimace, a smirk, whatever. We've all heard it from teachers, 'don't make a face, the audience might not have realized unless you made that face!'. Yes... maybe if the audience member is very new to music, but honestly that's BS. By now most people here know I tend to have pretty controversial opinions and crazy thoughts which tend to go against the general conceptions, but I don't really care. Because let's be real, we're not idiots, we all know you made that mistake, and you making that face made absolutely no change to the sound.
What I'm more interested in, is why exactly do we make these faces? I can confidently say that I have never made a face on stage, not because I haven't screwed up (I have many, many times...), but because of my subconscious thoughts on why I think it stems from an extremely unhealthy mentality, and today I have finally decided to verbalize these thoughts. It still seems quite abstract in my head so I hope I can explain it clearly enough...
It usually arises in quite a specific type of error, one which is quite subtle, but still quite detectable by most players. Let's say it's a flat long note which unfortunately took you a little time to correct. This is not a huge drama where you smile about it on stage and we collectively think 'haha oops!', this is something kind of subtle. So why make the face here?
You made the face because you didn't want other people to think that you didn't realize your own mistake as a result of not making a face.
This usually occurs with the students who are very protective of their egos. They don't want their peers to think that they were so stupid/musically insensitive that they didn't realize their own mistake, yet everyone including the student themselves KNOWS that the mistake happened. For this kind of person, it is actually extremely difficult to accept this, and to let go of this 'formality' of error acknowledgement because they don't even realize this is what they are doing. It's legitimately a physical struggle for them to not make a face.
Let me be clear, I'm not talking about relatively major screw ups where even a non musician would realize, and it doesn't really apply to beginner/low level students. This is quite a specific level of error for the intermediate/advanced player, but easily the most common type of error. I'm not trying to say that anyone who make faces has psychological problems, but to my knowledge I believe this is a completely unaddressed topic.
I would think of it as the player's "sense of self" comes into awareness in such a moment. For players with a strong sense of perfectionism, they probably have a self-concept that says, "I'm not allowed to make mistakes, and if I do, then I'm bad and the world will judge me" - It might have only small parts of that idea, depending on how rigid the person is.
Speaking for myself, it comes from wanting to show some imagined critic that *I already know I screwed up and I don't want you to point it out to me*!!
Sure Karen - Teachers and peers that we interact with on a regular basis could also have a part in becoming part of our inner critic, but I would wager that students that have gotten similar messages growing up will much more readily internalize those ideas, and that students that were raised more secure will probably not mesh well with teachers that would be so harsh, and will probably have buffers against peers that would be so critical.
This requires someone who contradicts, if only to keep the discussion going.
I was guilty of this as a teenager, and I think you nail it. For me, it was about my sense of standards. If I made a face, the thinking went, the audience would know that I had high enough standards for my own playing that I was upset with the error I had just made. Looking back, I think it's something I did to protect myself from the harsh judgements of others. If I appeared discontent with myself for making a mistake, others would know that I noticed it and cared enough to be visibly upset by it. It's a similar mindset to that which sometimes fuels the need for us to meet congratulatory audience members with "eh it wasn't so good".
I saw (and heard) Perlman do that (grimace) during a televised performance (so what the heck?) Could it have been his first slip-up?
So it doesn't simply express anger at oneself?
Albrecht, When I am practicing alone I also roll my eyes or sigh or even say "Oh, Ann" like my mom used to. It's just part of my ongoing conversation with the violin. In lessons I try to make some indication to my teacher that yes I realize that was supposed to be a C sharp. When I give a patio recital there are not faces or anything other than smiles. No flying tomatoes so I guess it's ok.
A silly thing this reminds me of, recently I made a video of myself playing unaccompanied Bach on my balcony. I did it via facebook, which mirrored me, making me look like I was playing left-handed. I knew the video was mirrored but I didn’t think it mattered. Then I posted the video on my Facebook wall. I got *so many* effing comments about “playing left handed.” Even from people who know me and have seen me play the regular way. And I got almost no comments about anything else. I suppose there was a positive outcome in that the experience led me to look up and learn how to make a video that is not mirrored on Facebook on an iphone. And that is in fact possible. I was motivated to fix my mistake. But the experience was kind of frustrating. I was surprised all over again at how weirdly nit-picky people can be.
It's a weakness. I admired a friend's musicianship for years. He tut-tutted once after making a mistake and, for me, fell off his pedestal.
Isn't communication via physical gestures basically "wired-in" to most creatures? Do we need to teach a baby to smile or laugh when they are happy, or to make a sour face when they taste something they don't like? Do we need to teach a baby to emit more fluid from their tear ducts when they are unhappy? Does a dog need to be taught to snarl when threatened, or a cat to puff up its tail?
Just to add to David's point: Facial contortions are a very minor sin compared to others a performer might commit. When I grew up the concert master of a local chamber orchestra (an excellent violinist and musician) used to hold his breath (especially in intense sections of slow movements) and then draw it in noisily through his nose. Now this is something he really ought to have gotten rid of.
Wow, a lot of great responses... I feel Evan Pasternak managed to articulate + elaborate on my main point well.
James, it would not necessarily be just a response to an unpleasant sound. It could also be a communication that something was unintentional, which might have been very important for the cohesion and stability of a human group or tribe, or at one time, even to the survival of the individual. We can tend to process an incident very differently, depending on whether it was intentional, or accidental. An act causing the death of another human, for example. Or the intentionally bad playing of Jack Benny, the comedian. He was actually a pretty decent player.
James - the example of your friend's Paganini is an interesting one. I'm wondering whether acoustic and distance played a part in audience perception of mistakes.
As an experienced clinical psychologist, I'd like to add a few comments to an already eloquent series of personal and professional reactions and opinions.
Sandy, Amusement is right. There's a lot of laughing during my lessons. It's great.
In lessons I wince a lot, and it's mostly due to my playing, but often it's because my teacher forgot to put sugar in my tea.
As above I used to do this all the time however, now I have graduated to instead smiling. This is an improvement since it befriends the audience 'I know I made a mistake but its cool" rather than alienates them "Oh I suck I screwed up biggly".
I started trying to smile all the time (rather than just when I made a mistake) when Adam DeGraff told me to, during the Rockin' Fiddle Challenge several years ago. I find smiling while playing to be pretty challenging, and I wrote a whole blog about it at the time: https://www.violinist.com/blog/ravena/20127/13778/
"This article of faith that the audience doesn't notice mistakes unless you point them out, though, is really a red herring. It's just not true. They notice."
Smiling all the time might work OK in the last movement of a concerto, but fails to adequately communicate all the passion and variety of moods which should be present in the slow movement. ;-)
David, I have no problem with my "grrr" look.
I don't have to worry about any of this since I look like a dead person (or dead inside?) while playing.
@David I agree with you. If you read the blog, it was about struggling to smile while playing at all, and about considering when and if smiling might or might not be appropriate. I am not a natural smiler and smiling often feels fake to me. I chafe at being told to smile by others. But I still found some value in learning to approach performance with a smile. It can help build rapport with the audience and make the experience more fun for everyone.
"@Karen don’t you think smiling or making expressions while playing fools the audience into thinking how good the music is. Don’t you think one must practice enough to make any mistakes? Isn’t this cheating and disguising your playing with a fake smile. Works great who doesn’t know anything about violin playing."