The psychology of making faces when making a mistake

Edited: March 21, 2021, 5:46 AM · 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.

Replies (30)

Edited: March 20, 2021, 7:03 PM · 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.

I would argue that this narrative is something we inherit (or don't inherit) from how our parents made demands on us or were rigid with us, and we internalized this rigidity. I think that attachment theory could be a very useful way of looking at the psychology of performance, and a good way to work with issues we may have with performance. For some people, I bet that they were harshly dealt with when making mistakes as children - They learned that making mistakes were VERY big deals. Maybe they learned that they needed to show that they knew they were making mistakes by their parents, so now they have a habit of telegraphing that they made a mistake to preempt the judgment of others, as if to say, "Here, I'm beating myself up plenty, so you don't need to".

Basically, when we are performing, we don't really want our "sense of self" to appear - We want all of our mental capacity to be focused on the particulars of the performance. Self-referential thinking is going to take us out of our flow state, and if we have strong tendencies in this direction, it can be quite the lapse in our concentration that can be quite difficult to recover from.

If we make an error and can stay in the moment, it's a tiny blip for everyone - our audience and ourself. If we make a mistake and we have the intrusive thought, "I'm a fraud, and I suck and everyone just heard that and is now mad for me wasting their time", then not only can that totally throw us off in the moment, but we are probably going to be ruminating on that for quite a while later, when the audience isn't going to sweat it.

I went to a poor girl's recital that seemed to be a nervous wreck, and she totally undid herself, playing the Faure Sonata No. 1. She actually started crying while she was playing, and it was a totally painful experience for me. I can't say for sure what was going on in her mind, but I deduced that she was very ashamed and upset with herself. My guess is that she was capable of playing the work, as it was her final master's recital, but she was totally mentally breaking down. I wouldn't wish such an experience on my worst enemy.

This might sound kind of woo-woo, but I'm utterly convinced. The deeper work here is about recognizing the habits we have that take us out of the moment, which will disrupt our playing.

And also, musicians are pretty savvy, but I've been in the audience when Natasha Paremski got a standing ovation for a performance that I wouldn't even categorize in the binary of making or not making mistakes. I thought it was one of the worst performances I ever heard, but the audience ate it up, and if she made mistakes, you could not have been able to tell from watching her face.

March 20, 2021, 7:27 PM · James,
I think your point and analysis is excellent.
From an Alexander Technique perspective it is a basic sign that the person is not in the present. Or, as Szigeti put it ‘able to put the mind in two places at once’ referring to what one is currently playing and also preparing for what comes next. It is a very small time lag but basically leaving the present moment and dwelling in the past. The ‘Inner game of Tennis ‘ has. a lot to say about this too!
It is a sign of artistic immaturity.
I also hate the people who look moved all the time . As one of my AT teachers once said’there is nothing more boring than watching someone crying.’
Cheers,
Buri
Edited: March 20, 2021, 8:04 PM · 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*!!

I think Christian nailed it when he said this: "now they have a habit of telegraphing that they made a mistake to preempt the judgment of others, as if to say, "Here, I'm beating myself up plenty, so you don't need to"."

It's like if you drop something or your fly is open and everyone else gasps or laughs knowingly while you stand there. You make the face because you want to assure them that you too know it is happening, and are not clueless and in need of edification from them.

It's not just parents that can offer that sort of judgement--friends, family, teachers, anyone with a little knowledge and not much empathy can be very proud of themselves when pointing out a little mistake, as if they are doing you a big favor by calling attention to it.

One thing I've never understood about responses like the two above is the categorical insistence that no one in the audience will notice unless you call attention to it. Would that that were true. That has not been my experience. It is beyond dreadful to be blindsided by somebody proudly bringing up a minor mistake they noticed after what you thought was a decent performance.

I'm not defending the face-making behavior, but I think it's an understandable reaction to this situation. I also don't think that people who do this are helped by being called immature. They might receive more benefit from being persuaded that the imagined critic doesn't actually exist, that the critics from the past have their own issues with maturity and can be safely ignored, or that there are other ways of shutting the critics up.

Or they might receive more benefit from exploring why they are unable to solve a problem that they are already aware of. This inability may come from having received teaching that was more focused on fault-finding than on solutions. I think that in particular has been true in my case, although not with my current teacher.

I've become able to deal better with people who try to be "helpful" by calling attention to my mistakes by explaining what's happening, why I made it, and what steps I'm taking to address it. I don't know if I still make faces or not when I make a mistake, but I don't feel particularly defensive about mistakes anymore the way I used to.

March 20, 2021, 8:52 PM · Well,
you look really delightfully happy in your photograph so just stay that way and carry on playing your heart out!
Cheers,
buri
March 20, 2021, 9:06 PM · 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.

A great shame of mine is when many years ago, after a concert in my amateur orchestra where we had an excellent young player playing the Sibelius wonderfully, I brought up to her how well she had recovered from a small memory slip in the cadenza. My mindset was that she MUST have been mortified, and I was going to preempt any such self-criticism on her part, but I can clearly see that I was working out what my intensely self-critical reaction would have been in her place, so I was trying to be "helpful" when I should have kept my mouth shut, not tried to project my own inner critic on someone else, and congratulated her on what was an excellent performance. The sins of youth, I suppose...

So hopefully you can take any "help" with the idea that the person is working out some inner baggage, and whatever they are talking about likely has absolutely nothing to do with you, and is likely greatly exaggerated compared to what your mistake may have been. My mom often would start her commentary on a performance I had just given with some flaw in my playing - She couldn't separate her experience of performance pressure in whatever past scenario was running in her memory from my performance in the present, enough to just be a gracious audience member. The classical music world is full of this kind of stuff.

March 20, 2021, 9:14 PM · This requires someone who contradicts, if only to keep the discussion going.

For myself I can say that I make those faces (and uninhibitedly since no-one sees them) when I practice by myself. So it has nothing to do with the presence of an audience.

In an ensemble or when performing I don't usually make those faces. Probably because I am forced to play on without interruption no matter what mishap occurs. When I am alone I tend to have problems playing a movement through without interruption; there is always something to make a face at and to try to get right the second time.

March 20, 2021, 9:54 PM · 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".

Of course, this is stupid. The audience has the right to decide how important the mistake we made is to their overall impression of the performance, and I'd argue that drawing extra attention to it by making a face does not help us in that process. Fluent musicians can recover from mistakes and give an enjoyable performance, and a sour facial expression makes the audience uncomfortable and sends the message that the performer is unhappy with their output, so the audience should be too.

I'd go as far as to say that it's a bit insulting to the audience, as they may have really appreciated the performance as a whole, and our need to impose our own standards on their concert experience is a subtle way of implying that their judgement-making process is inferior to ours. In a similar sense, it is insulting to tell an audience member who compliments you that you didn't actually play so well because what you are actually doing is calling their sense of judgement into question, even if you perceive your behavior as exhibiting modesty.

I think this is something people fix as they develop. As a student, it can seem like perfect execution is the endgame, but when you recognize the importance of character, phrasing and color in a powerful performance, a minor slip-up is no longer the end of the world. It becomes easier to avoid face-making when you don't equate a small mistake with "OMG the performance is ruined".

Just my two cents.

March 20, 2021, 10:22 PM · I saw (and heard) Perlman do that (grimace) during a televised performance (so what the heck?) Could it have been his first slip-up?

Heard Menuhin mess up a bunch of times in a televised performance of the Beethoven (he was old by then and should have just stuck with conducting) and he didn't grimace - (probably used to messing up by then).

Edited: March 20, 2021, 11:12 PM · So it doesn't simply express anger at oneself?

But I do feel that most emoting is fake and repellent. At least one can sense that some people use emoting as a substitute for musicality (or rather as a misguided stimulus) instead of as a response to it.

March 20, 2021, 11:48 PM · 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.
March 21, 2021, 12:11 AM · 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.
March 21, 2021, 2:51 AM · 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.
Edited: March 21, 2021, 4:15 AM · 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?

I will postulate that these things are natural, and something that a human would need to learn to suppress if they don't want to exhibit them, rather than being an indication of some psychological irregularity.

March 21, 2021, 4:20 AM · 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.
March 21, 2021, 5:00 AM · Wow, a lot of great responses... I feel Evan Pasternak managed to articulate + elaborate on my main point well.

David's point is interesting. Of course it's absolutely natural to physically respond to unpleasant sounds. I think however, that it might not apply so much to string players for 1 main reason: playing the violin is extremely difficult.

Because of how difficult it is to make even a decent sound, our ears are quite well accustomed to the countless imperfections we make every day in our practice. Let me try and give an example: A friend of mine was preparing for a competition and decided to perform his solo Paganini and Bach for a few friends, which happened to also include pianists and wind players. Of course it wasn't perfect, but I thought it was quite decent for a conservatory student performance. The non-string players on the other hand told me afterward that they thought it was absolutely awful, that every 5th note was off, and that the sound was uncontrolled. Even before they told me, I could sense during the performance, that my 'standards of perfection' were significantly lower than for other instruments. Because to be honest unless you are a top level professional, Paganini caprices or even a Bach fugue should sound disgusting to basically everyone from an objective accuracy/beauty of sound standpoint. It doesn't sound disgusting to us though, because we are all 'disgusting'. Not trying to be negative! Everyone on this site is in the same boat, and we are all trying to improve.

Anyway the point of that was to explain why it might not actually be natural to make faces when we make mistakes.

Edited: March 21, 2021, 10:28 AM · 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.
March 21, 2021, 7:09 AM · 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.

I honestly know that I sound dreadful in my living room, because the furniture, books & carpet deaden the sound. I guess it's like the bright lights in the bathroom that reveal every facial flaw. Your friend may have been the victim of an unreflective and 'tight' acoustic. You knew what an overly close-up violin sounds like and could make allowances for it: perhaps the wind players didn't and couldn't.

The issue of closeness take me back to a performance of the Beethoven 3rd Piano Concerto (C minor) by Annie Fischer, in the mid 70s. She was a considerable pianist and I knew and loved some of her recordings, but I was astonished by the number of mistakes she made in the first movement particularly. She rode through most of them with the sort of 'Oops darling!' smiles that one's great aunt might make after too much sherry, but as I was in the second or third row of the audience, they were very noticeable. Or course, a pianist's wrong note is a different thing from a violinist's... .


Edited: March 21, 2021, 2:56 PM · 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.

Yes, of course, no one is perfect. Years ago, a colleague of mine (an excellent psychoanalyst) had a phrase for it - the perfection fantasy. This is the belief that the ONLY acceptable thing is perfection. So it's either totally perfect, or it's a total failure...nothing in between is acceptable. Therefore, you can't win; one slip and you've fallen from the pedestal and are a complete and utter failure.

And of course, we are all in between. Certainly there is nothing wrong with striving for perfection. So, what's the answer in an art form that seems to demand perfection in every way? Perhaps, as many of you have suggested, and especially in as demanding and sensitive and visible and auditory an art form as violin playing, here are a few goals for successfully coping:
- accepting our weaknesses and failures (i.e., accepting our humanity),
- appreciating our efforts to surmount them,
- practicing our coping (as well as our musical) skills,
- celebrating our strivings and attempts (no matter how successful or unsuccessful),
- bathing our ego in our successes.
- sharing our failures and looking back on them with self-acceptance, understanding, pride, amusement, and as an example to teach and help others (as so many of you above have done).

I hope that helps.
Sandy

March 21, 2021, 6:19 PM · Sandy, Amusement is right. There's a lot of laughing during my lessons. It's great.
March 22, 2021, 2:21 AM · 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.

"Tea without sugar is just vegetable soup."(Detectorists)

March 22, 2021, 10:28 AM · 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".

However, its only part way still I am still admitting to a mistake that most of the audience probably never noticed.

March 22, 2021, 12:02 PM · 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/

My efforts to smile more while playing seem to have paid off; in various practice groups I'm in where I share practice videos, when I remember to do it, people will compliment me on a nice smile and then more often than not will follow with a nice comment about my playing also.

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. The more important issue is whether they care. As the performer you can direct their attention in various ways, such that they care about what you care about.

March 22, 2021, 12:09 PM · "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."

Non-musicians can't hear intonation. I think that James was trying to say something along those lines in the original post. That they can't hear "smaller" mistakes. An example would be the comments under any super high-level piece (Sauret cadenza, Wieniawski 1, last rose, etc). People constantly say "perfect" or "immaculate", which are questionable descriptions (if the person who made it is qualified to make such a judgment).

"No one knows I am suffering or I didn’t like something."
Not true.

March 22, 2021, 2:52 PM · 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. ;-)
March 22, 2021, 3:11 PM · David, I have no problem with my "grrr" look.
March 22, 2021, 3:12 PM · I don't have to worry about any of this since I look like a dead person (or dead inside?) while playing.
March 22, 2021, 5:58 PM · @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.

@Mike I think it depends on who's the audience, and on where the player is in their development. We may disagree about our interpretation of the original post, but what I read is "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." I tend to concur that it is BS. Yet teachers and advice-givers, and players, say it all the time, to the point that IMO it starts to feel like gaslighting or victim-blaming to the student. The problem wasn't your mistake, because no one would have even noticed that, the problem was all in the face you made. Really? Much better would be to be honest. The audience may notice, so work to minimize errors, but don't dwell on them and make them worse when then inevitably occur. Instead in your performances create an atmosphere of mutual support and enjoyment.

@Rudransh puh-leez. Give it a rest. (But not a shoulder rest)

Edited: March 22, 2021, 6:29 PM · "@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."

I don't know how stupid you must think the audience is. A face isn't going to fool anyone. The lesser experienced audience that you mentioned won't even be able to hear the finer mistakes anyway (big mistakes don't usually happen, and when they do, it evokes sympathy from less experienced audiences... THEY DO HEAR TONE SLIP UPS/more obvious ones), so the face isn't the causation (of the audience being fooled into thinking a certain performance is better than it is).


" The important thing is to analyse where you are and where you want to go. What do you want to achieve and so work in that direction. Start imitating."

Also, this sounds like a generic inspirational quote, to be honest. The start imitating part at the end gave me plenty of chuckles, so thank you for that, from the bottom of my heart.

@Karen, I probably need to re-read the original post.


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