A Composer's Adventures

You Goofed—So Ignore It

MichaelColgrassTivoli1964

Me performing at Tivoli in Copenhagen, 1964.

We classical musicians are so rigorously trained that we feel extremely self-conscious about making mistakes in performance. Most of us find it difficult to forgive ourselves for playing a wrong note or rhythm, and missing an entrance is tantamount to a felony. But top professionals do make mistakes in performance and are rarely phased by it.

My attitude toward performance blips has always been to ignore it. I recall a new music concert at Carnegie Recital Hall with Gunther Schuller conducting the premiere of a new piece by composer David Reck, where I had a brutal page turn to negotiate in the midst of a wild flurry of complex vibraphone notes. I rehearsed that page turn repeatedly to make sure I could make it without missing a note. Shortly into the performance of the piece I made the page turn so vigorously that the accordion part came unraveled and fell to the floor.

Unflustered, Schuller stopped conducting, turned to the audience with a smile and said, “What’re ya’ gonna do with that?” The audience laughed and trumpeter Ronnie Andersen, sitting in front of me, folded up my part and put it back on my music stand. I remained frozen in position, refusing to show any embarrassment. The second time around, I made sure to be less energetic in my page turning and got through the performance in good order.

I played a two week sub for a friend in a Broadway musical called ‘Milk and Honey.’ At one point in a matinee, the orchestra started playing the “om-pah, oom-pah” introduction but the soprano didn’t sing. The conductor stopped and signaled to the musicians to start again and she still didn’t sing. Then she walked to the front of the stage and said, “I don’t know what’s the matter with me. I’ve sung 157 performances of this song and I just forgot the words—oh, now I remember!” She signaled the conductor who started us again and she sang. The audience gave her a thunderous hand for being so open about it, probably identifying with her for times when they had made a simple goof.

After the show I saw her and asked her what happened. She said, “I forgot I was on stage. I just walked in from lunch and went on stage without taking a moment to remind myself it was show time.” As a performer, I recognized this phenomenon of needing to re-focus from the everyday state of mind to the special act of performing or creating.

When we train musicians, we should probably be a little kinder and assure them that there is no learning without making mistakes.

The movie ‘Whiplash’ is to my mind a good example of how not to train a musician. Exaggerated to the point of ridiculousness, this movie was an echo of the old dictatorial approach to training classical musicians—that the music always had to be flawless. I recall reading a correspondence between Beethoven and one of his pupils. The pupil apologized to Beethoven for a mistake made in a public performance of one of the master’s piano pieces. Beethoven responded: “A technical mistake is a human error but an interpretive mistake is an inhuman error—and you made no inhuman errors.

How many exciting moments have I heard with players like Charlie Parker and Miles Davis in live performance, where they would reach so urgently for a note at the zenith of expression and squeak a reed or fluff a note? Even then — or especially then — the resulting expressiveness was exciting and memorable. Of course, the improvisational nature of jazz is not the same as playing Beethoven, but I’d still vote for genuine expression over a note-perfect and sterile performance.

Michael Colgrass

7 Comments

  1. Well said Michael!

    I’m immediately reminded of something that my friends Fred Mills and Ronald Romm told me. They were the original trumpet players with the Canadian Brass Quintet. They were at a concert of the Chicago Symphony and were paying particular attention to their hero, (and hero of many of us) principal trumpet for many decades with the CSO, Adolph Herseth. There was a famous exposed and difficult solo in one of the pieces that was being performed and Fred an Ron waited especially to see how Adolph would play this part. In the middle of the passage Adolph played a ‘crow’ (an obvious mistake) and the very next note and every other note was perfect. His recovery was so instantaneous and and complete that Fred and Ron looked at each other saying: “Did you hear that?” It was as if it had never happened. I love that story and often tell it. I do admit to not having that ability all of the time but it continues to inspire.

    I think that the advent of recording both has helped and hurt us. These days imperfect performances are tidied up, re-tuned, moved onto the beat and polished to ‘perfection’ Even the overtones can be scrubbed and the harsh ones removed. Musical performances are ‘tarted up’ much like the models that appear on commercial beauty-product ads – not a blemish in sight. We are left with the impression that only technical perfection matters. How sad.

    As you point out. The same is true in the jazz field. An early trumpet teacher Ray Kotwika, berated me for liking Miles Davis because, to him, Miles was a sloppy player. However, I couldn’t stop liking Miles because of his wonderful time-sense, playfulness and creative spirit. Ray was a great teacher for me though because he pushed me to clean up my technique. Still, I love the players that take chances in performance. Pushing the envelope is one of the joys of real jazz performance – just leap and you’ll find wings.

    My friend Tom Szczesniak said to me: “I love playing with you because I never know what’s going to happen”. I took that as a great compliment. Of course, sometimes it doesn’t work out all that well but when it does I experience liftoff. It’s not that I don’t care about perfection but my definition is not based on technical polish but upon the expression of feeling.

  2. Perhaps the most amusing incident in my memory re mistakes in performance happened at the New York premiere of my trio, ‘Strangers,’ for clarinetist James Campbell, violist Michael Tree and pianist William Tritt in the eighties at Merkin Hall of the Kaufman Music Center in New York City. These are all seasoned performers and we had a fine performance. However, shortly after the piece began, Michael Tree somehow got off, which created a chain reaction throwing off James Campbell and also Bill Tritt. They all met at a forthcoming fermata and resumed without incident. Knowing how conscientious Michael is I started rehearsing consoling remarks so he wouldn’t feel too bad when he saw me afterward. I dredged up every rationalization for him I could think of—“Hey, Michael we all do it sometime,” “It was fine—the overall effect was there anyway,” “That passage is brutal,” etc.
    Armed with this medley of remarks to allay his anticipated embarrassment I went backstage to see him. As I approached him he was just putting his viola in its case and turned his head to me and said, casually, “Just goes to show—we’re not robots!”

  3. I am a visual artist-Our goofs do not have the same impact of course.But sometimes while painting ,without looking where I dip my brush,I go into the wrong colour and then get a really amazing result that I would never have gotten otherwise-A happy accident-I absolutely refuse to see”whiplash” I feel that strongly about that method of instruction

  4. Laurie,

    I can identify with your dipping into the wrong color issue, because that has happened to me as a composer where I make a mistake in what I’m writing and find the result is surprisingly delightful. As you said, there are such things as happy accidents.

  5. Very well said Michael! Thank you so much.

    I fear that often we, especially the younger musicians, are always so concerns about making every single performance absolutely perfect that we forget that we are only human. This also results in us having less fun and not taking as much performance risks which result in a less effective performance. Nobody has or ever will be perfect, mistakes will happen, and we should keep the musical train rolling! Technical perfection will never have anything on effective musicality!

  6. That reminds me of the story I’ve heard about the short piano solo, “The Lake at Evening”, by Charles Griffes. It ends with a beautiful unresolved chord in the right hand that is held out for several measures while the left hand continues playing a rhythmic pattern. Apparently Griffes didn’t write it that way; he actually resolved the chord in the last measure, but the pianist who premiered it failed to notice the resolution. After Griffes heard it performed with the incorrect ending, he went back to the music and changed it to the way the pianist had played it, because he decided he liked it better that way.

  7. Hi, Michael,

    Thank you so much for spreading that gospel. I am working on a book about jazz education for elementary school students, and one of my arguments for the study of improvisation at an early age is to reinforce the concept of continuing to move forward no matter what. The proliferation of perfect recordings and the reduction in concert attendance has made it harder for people to envision the acceptability of mistakes (in sports, people are crucified for them) and I think this may have worked its way into the mindset of performers today, whether they are being taught like that or not. My teacher, thankfully, extolled your view, and your workshop on Stage Fright was a nice reinforcer.

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