To err is human, and no musician is a stranger to making mistakes. Any player who’s put in a good amount of time onstage will most likely have a collection of train wrecks to tell about—moments that resulted in the creation of strategies for being unflappable when things fall apart before an audience.
We asked a cross-section of seasoned musicians to share stories of mistakes they had made onstage and tell us how they recovered, and to offer other pearls of wisdom on the subject. While these artists play in a wide range of styles, they all share a common skill: They’ve learned to handle mishaps as skillfully as they do playing their instruments, and are able to maintain cool under extreme pressure onstage.
JAMIE STILLWAY, a fingerstyle guitarist from Portland, rescues herself from “temporary fretboard amnesia”:
I’ve had so many moments of screw-ups, from various amplification snafus, to very wrong notes played loudly, to even playing an entire set without knowing my zipper was down—during a gig where I stood up!
I was recently the featured performer for a monthly guitar society meeting here in Oregon, and went in with a bit of a carefree attitude, as I decided to perform without a set list. As the group seemed very classical guitar-oriented, I thought I’d play my arrangement of [Enrique Granados’] “Danza”—a piece that is a rite of passage for any aspiring classical guitarist. I told the story of how I learned it in high school and fumbled through it at a recital when I was 16. And how I had found the folded-up sheet of music a few years ago, and as I played it again it seemed so different. Musically speaking, it made so much more sense.
After I finished telling the story and introducing the song, I was ready to start the piece, but suddenly had no idea how it went. Admittedly, it may not have been the wisest song choice, as I hadn’t played through the tune in a while. In my mind I kept thinking, “It’s in E minor, starts on the V chord,” but as I looked at my left hand, I suddenly had no recognition of how to do that.
Interestingly, this had happened to me before at a gig, and always in the moment right before I was starting a song. My mind would go completely blank, and I’d get what I call TFA—temporary fretboard amnesia. Since I like to have a fairly casual demeanor onstage, I’m often honest and open when I’m in the midst of a screw-up, or suffering through TFA. In this case, I said to myself and the audience, “How does this go?” I played a few wrong notes all in a row, but once I got started it was fine; muscle memory to the rescue!
It seems that some audience members appreciate these moments, and it also appears to make everyone relax. Perfection is fleeting, but as long as you stay in the present moment—which sounds cliché—you can get through any performance screw-up. And I’ve discovered that you can’t let any negative thoughts creep in—otherwise you’re doomed!
FRED LOBERG-HOLM, a self-described anti-cellist, composer, and improviser in Chicago, offers some fresh perspectives on mistakes:
In a way, I live in the post-mistake world; I let go of mistakes a long time ago. But when I was a kid, I heard that Benny Goodman said that when you make a mistake in your solo, you should just do it again, to make it seem intentional, and that made a big impression on me.
Morton Feldman once said that he became a professional composer when he started writing scores directly in ink, meaning he had no choice but to accept the music he notated. It’s kind of like in the ’80s film Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, when Pee-wee Herman falls off his bike, jumps up, and says, “I meant to do that!” I think that Goodman, Feldman, and Pee-wee were all saying the same thing about mistakes.
As an improviser, I think there’s no wrong note—just a wrong second note. You’re only ever a half-step away from a right note, so a note that will correct a wrong one is always close at hand—kind of like those appoggiaturas that Charlie Parker would play…
I was once asked to play a piece by a well-known Chicago bandleader. The music was very difficult to play accurately, with lots of strangely placed events and constantly changing time signatures. At one point, the bandleader looked at the vibes player and said, “Did I write that?” Unlike the rest of us, who were plowing through making mistakes, the vibes player had just given up and was improvising. The point is, sometimes you just have to keep moving forward and doing the best you can in an ensemble setting—and accept the mistakes you’re making in doing so.
A Boston-based cellist who specializes in new music, RACHEL BARRINGER remembers an unfortunate recital situation:
When I was an undergrad, I was performing the basso continuo part on cello with a singer and harpsichordist for the singer’s recital. Since I was reading off the score, I somehow lost my place and could not find where we were at all. So I casually stopped playing, kept my poker face, waited about 30 seconds, found my place in the score, and went on. My heart was pounding, my face felt hot, and I was mortified! But it turns out that no one knew except the singer and harpsichordist, and it was not even that bad.
ERIC SKYE, an acoustic jazz-guitar master based in Portland, Oregon, reflects on how one musician’s disaster is another’s brilliant improvisation:
A few years ago, I was playing at a jazz club here in town with a great bass player and drummer. We were playing “All the Things You Are”—pretty tricky with its modulations, but a tune I’ve played for years and know very well. It was the last tune before the break, and I happened to know that a lot of serious jazz players and instructors were in town checking us out.
In the middle of my solo, I was getting pretty angular and “out” and somehow I just got totally lost—like falling-off-a-train-in-India lost. It went on like this for four choruses, and it was just so awful trying to get back onboard. Somehow, I was able to get back to the head and out. When it came time for the break, I had to exit by passing through the audience—the ultimate walk of shame. But two different jazz instructors stopped to say things like, “Those are some incredible Lydian dominant ideas you have!” It just goes to show that an outside listener might have a totally different perspective on your music.
CALI ROSE, a Los Angeles-area singer-songwriter and ukulele player, greets mistakes with warmth and good humor:
I screw up onstage all the time! If I don’t, then it’s like a miracle. We are human after all. And I’ve been performing for most of my life. When I make a grand flub, I respond with humor because I think if the audience knows you are OK with making a mistake, they rally and support you.
I might say something like, “Well folks, charm rather than perfection… ha, ha, ha.” I mean, come on, it may be just a note or two that’s a half-step off the mark. Will the earth stop orbiting the sun because I made a mistake?
One of my friends, a renowned jazz pianist, tells me that when she makes a goof onstage, she repeats the same mistake through the rest of the song so the audience thinks it’s part of the performance. Besides that, so-called mistakes can lead to unexpected and wonderful discoveries.
But this is the story that changed my life as a performer: Years ago I attended a Linda Ronstadt concert. At the time, she was the hot new thing and her music was topping the charts. She and her band had begun playing one of her hits when she waved her arms and stopped the musicians. Mid-song! She leaned into the microphone and let go the “F-bomb,” loud enough to hear two counties over. The audience went crazy. They cheered and yelled. I was so happy and relieved and inspired to see this artist make a big mistake in front of a big audience, stop the band, articulate her frustration with herself, and begin again.
We all make mistakes, and when a performer cops to this very human happening, it helps the audience, it helps all of us be kinder to ourselves and a little more magnanimous toward the struggle we all have as artists and human beings.
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2016 issue of Stage & Studio. Click here to download the entire issue for free.
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