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The Fine Art of Screwing Up

We all make mistakes in performance (except John Williams). It just happens. It’s part of the game. The really hard part is recovery: those milliseconds after the mistake.

The problem is confidence. Specifically, too much of it. We saunter on stage, start playing, then promptly screw up. The confidence we walked on with is gone. In its place is a ball of nervousness. The one mistake has thrown us into a downward spiral from which it’s hard to recover.

A performer needs confidence and poise, however, so we can’t let that go.

The fine are of screwing up is mastering non-attachment to the mistakes.

And it’s incredibly hard to do. I completely screwed up an entire section of a piece in a guitar ensemble concert last week. It took me the rest of the piece to recover. I’m writing this post as a reminder to myself what should happen when mistakes happen.

As mistakes happen, let go. Focus on the task at hand, and look forward to making the next bit as beautiful as you possibly can.

It’s easy to say what needs to happen, but it’s much harder to actually do it when the pressure is on.

4 Responses leave one →
  1. 2009 November 27

    Part of letting go could be related to your perspective on life as a whole. There has to be something in your life that’s much bigger than music (in my opinion). Otherwise, if music becomes that thing, it tends to self destruct. JS Bach I think servers as a great example. His music served a much greater purpose than just fulfilling his own needs or the needs of his ego. So consequently his music become truly great.

    I don’t know if this makes sense but I really think it is critical.

    • 2009 November 27

      I think you’re right on that one, Bobber. Petar Jankovic touched on that a bit in his interview.

      You just have to go on stage without an ego. Very hard to do, unfortunately.

  2. 2009 November 27

    I know another “flawless” player… although far less known than J.W. Look up Aldo Lagrutta at YouTube. Quite amazing!

  3. 2015 May 9

    Mistakes come in magnitudes for me. Small mistakes, nail clicks, squeeks,buzzes etc happen more freequently and are easily ignored. My playing is dense with these. Higher magnitude errors like 1/2 step gliss, slipped fingering or wrong string accidentals are easily brushed off and if no break in continuity occures most casual listeners brush it off as well. Full implosion meltdowns are reserved for those times when an external disturbance interrupts a piece in which case a moment of poise is appropriate to continuing from the nearest restart point. Brain farts are never welcome but when they happen I try to make it a part of an improv or something and throw in a blues lick or pop song to cover while I try to remember where I was. Mostly, don’t stop. Playing through errors while keeping the continuity flowing is what many people expect and consider worthy. Small and medium errors diminish as you cease to pay attention to them and your audience won’t pay attention to them either if you don’t give your self the stink eye for it. Large flubs and breaks in rhythm and continuity happen infrequently but they don’t have to ruin your audiences experience. They may actually show them you human side and sense of humor while demonstrating your level of perperation since you navigated the mine field and got back on track. When the full melt down does come take a moment of poise and continue from your nearest restart point. The worst errors occure for me when I’m exploring experssion. I’ll get a feeling going with a piece (like a swinging Fer Elise) that quite unique and that will distract me causing a memory error. As a result I take fewer chances playing with more mundane expression in order to play with better continuity. For me it’s a stratigy of managing the mistakes. The best way to manage these errors is to approach each phrase as a small song. With each phrase a slight pause or comma gets the next phrase mentaly refreshed. Segovia was accused of using rubato to cover for fingering glitches and memory lapses. Knowing this can give a soloist those extra miliseconds between a full melt down and a passing non-error.

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