Though you may be tempted to panic or freeze up after playing a bad note during your performance, your mistake is not the end of the world – far from it! Learn four tips and tricks that will get you through those moments, with your audience being none the wiser.
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In our recent episode with Dr. Melody Payne, she shared an early music experience of performing in church, making a tiny mistake in the piece she’d prepared and just freezing up. In reality the situation wasn’t really high-pressure, but to her in that moment she found herself utterly unprepared for the possibility of making a mistake – and so she just stopped playing.
That was a big painful moment for her in her musical journey and maybe you’ve had similar experiences yourself. Melody explained that now she tries to help her students avoid that pain in two ways: by understanding that a mistake is not the end of the world and it’s okay to make mistakes – and by equipping them with practical techniques they can use in the moment to help them recover when they do make a mistake.
That’s what we’re going to be talking about on today’s episode. I wanted to share four big strategies that can help you recover from a musical mistake, and some practical tips for each.
This topic of recovering from mistakes is such an important one for musicians because it ties deeply into how confident you feel and how comfortable you are to perform your music and share it with others.
We actually have a whole module inside Musical U called “Get Confident”, dedicated to helping you build up your confidence in music in a practical step-by-step way. As well as helping with anxiety and stage fright it tackles this side of things: knowing that you don’t need to be 100% perfect because you’re equipped with skills to let you handle mistakes gracefully if they arise. I’ll put a link to more information about that module in the shownotes and I’m going to be sharing some tips from it in this episode.
Strategy Number 1: Keep going
This is maybe the only strategy taught to most students in instrument lessons: if you make a mistake, just keep going. If you haven’t taken lessons recently you might have forgotten about this crucial musical rule, and although it sounds simple it does take practice.
Fundamental to any piece of music is the pulse, or beat. That steady progression of musical time that lets the listener tune in and follow what’s happening in the music.
Playing the wrong note isn’t such a big deal and many listeners won’t even notice – but mess with that steady beat and the listener is going to feel like something’s gone wrong.
So the number one strategy is to learn to keep to tempo even if you fumble. Don’t pause and start again – just keep your internal metronome going and try to pick up the beat and keep playing.
As the saying goes, “The show must go on”, and that’s certainly true when you make a musical mistake.
This does require practice. In our recent episode with Gerald Klickstein, author of The Musician’s Way, he recommended practicing performing. Even if you don’t have an audience, make sure that your practice sessions include giving a “performance” of each piece you’re working on. This is the perfect opportunity to practice keeping going if a mistake arises. In your normal practice time, by all means do stop and correct the mistake and maybe spend some time working to fix it. But when performing, or practicing performing, don’t let a mistake trip you up – keep the music going.
Strategy Number 2: Keep it musical
Building on the idea of keeping the beat going, you also want to keep the music going.
Suppose you’re halfway through a song and you forget how the next part is meant to go or lose your place in the sheet music. It’s hard to keep the beat going if you don’t know what to play!
Often the audience won’t even know if you play a wrong note or two – but if you start playing completely random notes at random times, they’ll notice that things suddenly don’t sound very musical…!
Keeping it musical can be simple – like knowing that it will probably work fine to loop back and play the last section again. Or it can be more advanced, drawing on your musicality to tell you what notes will work, musically.
When you study ear training for playing by ear and improvisation like we teach at Musical U you gain a real understanding of the notes you’re playing, even when playing from memory or sheet music. That means that if suddenly your memory or sheet music fail you, you aren’t left with a totally blank canvas. You understand which notes and rhythms will fit with the music you’ve just been playing and you’re able to make something up on the spot – which the audience might not even realise wasn’t the official right notes!
In our Get Confident module one member shared this experience. He said:
“At times, I’ve had “brain freeze” or forgetting the musical passage while playing in front of people. Instead of stopping or stumbling, I will shift to improvising until I can mentally reconnect with the memorized theme of the music.”
By equipping yourself with some play-by-ear or improvisation skills you can be prepared to patch over any mistakes or problem spots with something that sounds musical and keeps the music going in a way the audience will enjoy.
Strategy Number 3: Embrace your mistakes
If you’ve ever been to a concert and the performer makes a glaring error, you probably saw the audience perk up, smile, or even clap for them. That’s because in the moment, the audience felt like they were truly connecting on a human level with their favorite performer. They are now “insiders”! They are seeing the musician’s vulnerable side.
Confident musicians know that they are free to make mistakes when they perform and that it will probably even endear the audience to them. As a result, these musicians likely make fewer mistakes, which makes them more confident.
Try practicing what you will do if you make a mistake.
- Do nothing. Don’t draw attention to the error at all, just keep going and keep it musical
- Just give a little smile. Then, as Taylor Swift would put it: Shake it off.
- If things go more seriously off track you can:
- Make a joke, or laugh with the audience.
- Or even invite the audience to sing along to “help you”.
Inside the Get Confident module in Musical U we invited members to share how they’ve embraced mistakes in the past or decided to handle them in future. Here are a few things they said.
“I give a smile, being amused by the things that happen in performance even if they never happened in practice. If it is a practice performance, these slips are valuable hints for the next practice session.”
“Before we start a performance, I try to connect with someone in the audience and get a read on how the whole audience is feeling. Then based on the error and audience, I use one of the strategies.”
“I smile and play. If the song ends well no one really cares”
Strategy Number 4: Keep a positive attitude
We all know the power of a positive attitude in life but it’s particularly vital as a musician – and particularly vulnerable to the negative impact that mistakes can have.
We talked about keeping it going – that’s much harder to do if part of your brain is occupied with kicking yourself for the mistake for the next five minutes!
If you let your attitude be impacted it will come through on your face and in your playing. The audience will know whether you’re still in the moment, passionate and engaged – or you’re frustrated, disappointed and distracted.
The most valuable tip I can give you here is to remember this fact: Live music is meant to be imperfect – that’s what people are there for!
These days more than ever before we have immediate access to pretty much all music ever recorded – and great sound systems that can practically replicate the experience of hearing it live. So when people bother to go to a live performance they are there to support the musicians and to experience something different. Not the carefully-prepared studio-recorded perfection and not the record they’ve heard a thousand times before.
They are there for the unique experience of that concert. Mistakes and imperfections are part of that experience, even if they’re not part of the “official, perfect” version of the music.
As we talked about before, making a mistake can actually create a powerful moment of connection with the audience, enhancing the experience for them rather than being a negative.
Remembering that live music is about the experience more than it’s about the exact perfection of each note can make it much easier to keep a positive attitude when mistakes arise.
So far we’ve been talking about recovering about mistakes “in the moment” while you’re performing. But this last point really applies in the longer term too. It’s vital that once the performance is done you keep a positive attitude and don’t dwell on the mistake.
Yes, mistakes can be valuable opportunities to learn and improve – that’s one of the good things about mistakes! But once you’ve asked yourself what you could learn and made plans to avoid that kind of mistake or handle it better in future, move on. Don’t waste time and energy in regret and don’t let that one mistake or disappointing performance slow you down or throw you off course. Get back to practice, look towards the next performance and keep moving forwards.
I’ll leave you with one more quote from our Get Confident module inside Musical U where a member shared a story of one performance that seemed to have gone badly due to mistakes…
“Part way into our performance two of us realized we couldn’t hear many of the others and we were playing too fast compared to many of the others. We felt we were doing terrible but couldn’t hear well enough to get back on track. We persevered and finished the number expecting to hear silence or even some booing at the end … but were completely surprised at the thunderous applause. We later heard a video of what we did and could hear our mistakes – but they were far from obvious. That experience made us realize that the audience enjoys live performance and does not make the critical judgement that we do.”