You Goofed—So Ignore It
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.