Monday, September 28, 2015

Coughs, Mistakes & Wardrobe Malfunctions: What to Do When It Happens to You!

Last Friday night, I had a blast performing three different concertos in a recital with my husband.  It was a little crazy to perform three such giant pieces on the same program, but hey, you only live once, right?  

The recital was a ton of fun, but it certainly wasn't perfect!  In fact, during the last concerto (the out of this world gorgeous Liebermann Flute Concerto), at the end of the second movement, I felt a tickle in my throat.  The tickle turned into an itch and the itch turned into the incredible desire to cough.  I scanned the page and realized I had about 5, slow, lyrical, delicate lines of music left to go.  What to do?? There were a couple of short rests available, but I still had two problems: 

1) There was no guarantee that 2 beats of rest would be enough to take care of my (now huge!) desire to cough and

2) If I did cough, it would totally ruin the beautiful mood of the music!

I made a quick decision to suffer for my art and make it to the end of the movement.  Thank goodness, I was able to play all the way through the last note, a pianissimo, slow, 8 beat, high Eb with a fermata! I froze, waited for those special seconds of silence after a beautiful musical moment, and then as discretely as I could, turned slightly away from the audience and coughed.  Unfortunately, that was not going to be enough.  

Have you ever tried to hold in a cough, trying not to interrupt something important going on?  If you have, you will know what I was feeling.  The desire to cough grows worse and worse, and you try harder and harder to hold it in until you might literally have tears streaming out of your eyes from the effort! 

When I realized there was absolutely no way I could play the thrilling (and super challenging!) final movement of the entire recital without having an epic coughing fit first, as calmly as I could, I looked at the audience, smiled, and asked, "Would you mind if I went and got a drink of water?"  To my great relief, most of them smiled, nodded their heads, chuckled and were obviously encouraging me to do what I needed to do! 

As I walked off the stage, I realized I didn't want the audience to hear me having a horrible coughing fit AND it was super awkward to leave them hanging in between movements, so I turned back and asked them if they wanted my husband to play something while I was gone.  They cheered, applauded, and my hero husband played some beautiful Chopin while I finally got the coughing out of my system back stage.

I recovered just in time to hear the audience applaud my husband's impromptu performance, so I walked back on stage with determination, gave him "the signal" and we launched into an exhilarating performance of the last movement of the Liebermann Flute Concerto.  If anything, the audience was even more appreciative at the end of the recital than if everything had gone perfectly! 

During my lovely day off yesterday (that particular kind of lovely day you have after the relief of a big performance going well), I was wondering how I could turn my coughing dilemma into an effective blog post.  Then, I realized how important this might be! In lessons and masterclasses, teachers often address how to prepare for a performance, and how to play during a performance, but is there enough talk about what to do when something unexpected happens?  Awkward things happen to performers all the time and we all need strategies to deal with them.  

The following suggestions are designed to help you know what to do when the unthinkable happens during a performance.  Whether you're dealing with coughs, mistakes, or even wardrobe malfunctions, there are a variety of strategies that can help you keep your dignity, continue performing beautiful music, and ensure that your audience still has a great time!

If you have to cough...

1) If you're performing with other musicians, try to find a loud moment in the music so your coughing won't be the loudest noise the audience hears. 

2) Cough early, as soon as you can, rather than holding it.  As you know from my story, it gets much worse the longer you hold it!

3) If you catch the feeling in your throat while it's still a small tickle, swallow multiple times (which may be just the trick to stop it before it starts). 

4) If you have to cough, cover your mouth.  Though the current health trend is to cough into your sleeve to prevent germ transfer, in this one instance, just use one hand so the other hand can hold your instrument and so you still have a chance at it being subtle. 

5) If you get caught in a jam like I did, it might be best to acknowledge the fact that it's awkward.  If you're in an audition facing your judges, say something like, "my apologies."  If you're in an anonymous audition (as in, behind a screen), you have no choice but to just cough and get back to the music without talking.  If you're on stage, you may have to choose how to let the audience know that you're sorry for the awkwardness by simply smiling, or, if you're comfortable enough, doing something like I did! 

What about water?

As you read my story above, you might be wondering why I didn't have a bottle of water with me on stage.  Many performers do have a water bottle on stage for discreet sips between movements. Normally, I prefer not to do that because I like the music to flow easily from one movement to the next, with just a little silence and no other interruptions if possible.  I think it's important to learn from my mistakes, though, and now that I realize it's a special situation with those three pieces being as lengthy and challenging as they are, I will definitely have a water bottle with me for the next performance (coming up in a few weeks)! 

For auditions, it is generally a smart idea to have a water bottle with you. Stay well hydrated and do whatever else helps you to feel like your throat is comfortable while you perform.  Another idea (borrowed from singers) is to swallow a spoonful of honey or olive oil if your throat is feeling dry.

After investing countless hours preparing for a performance, it is tempting to hope that everything will go perfectly.  Sorry to burst your bubble, but it won't.  Since you are a human being and not a robot, you will make mistakes in your performance.  Accepting this and being prepared with helpful strategies can help you stay comfortable and keep your cool when the unexpected happens. 

1) If it's a small mistake, completely ignore it.  Stay dedicated to the shape, flow, and character of your music.  This greatly increases your odds that no one will notice it anyway!

2) If it's a clearly audible mistake, use it as a clue to rededicate your focus and quickly take advantage of the next beautiful moment in the music.  By directing both your attention and the audience's attention to the next moment, the memory of the mistake will fade quickly. 

3) If it's a large mistake, stay cool, and search for a "way back in."  Start the next measure, the next phrase, or the next section with clarity and confidence to help yourself stay on track for the rest of the piece. 

4) No matter how large or small the mistake, always act like you meant to do it!  If you play a wrong note and then obviously try to "fix it" you have now drawn everyone's attention to the mishap.  Play each and every mistake as if you planned to do it all along. 

5) Get in the habit of instantly forgiving yourself for all mistakes.  Remember, even the most famous musicians in the world make mistakes all the time in live performance... they're just experts at covering them up!

There's no way I could finish this post without telling you about the time my skirt fell off in the middle of a performance.  Seriously.  It really happened.  For weeks afterwards, I would wake up and ask my husband, "Did it really happen, or did I just dream it?" He would shake his head, smile, and say, "Nope, it really happened!"

Here's how the story goes.  In a recital for my students and their parents, I was performing a duet with a senior in high school who would soon be graduating.  As a special treat for her last recital with me, we played Gary Schocker's Three Dances for Two Flutes together.  Since I was planning to perform the Carmen Fantasy with my husband after this final student performance, I had chosen to wear a skirt with red roses on it (perfect for Carmen!).  Even though it was a little big on me, I decided to wear it anyway.  As my student and I were enjoying the duet, I noticed my skirt slipping a little.  I kept searching for a moment to pull it up again, but there were no rests in sight!  I even stood more still than usual to avoid the drama I was so afraid might happen, but it kept slipping and slipping... and then... it fell.  All the way to the floor!

Believe it or not, for about 2 seconds, I actually pondered not stopping.  I was so dedicated to "practicing what I preached" in front of my students, that I didn't want to stop in the middle of the performance (the absolute worst thing you can do!). Thankfully, I came to my senses rather quickly and realized there was no getting around the fact that I needed to pull my skirt up.  As you can imagine, my students in the front row were transitioning from shocked silence to giggles.  So, I did the only thing I could do!  I pulled my skirt up, smiled, made a joke about having lost 5 pounds (the audience promptly applauded) and we finished the duet! I went on to perform the Carmen Fantasy and had an awesome time doing it.  Though I was pretty embarrassed (and very glad when the last of the students at that particular recital had graduated), ever since that performance, I now have the extremely powerful belief that... 

If I can play the Carmen Fantasy after my skirt fell off, 
I can do anything!     

In other words, just like with coughing or mistakes in your music, even if you have a wardrobe malfunction, there is always a way to stay in the moment, stay dedicated to the music, and help your audience feel as comfortable as possible.  If you want to learn from my cautionary tale and avoid getting yourself into a wardrobe malfunctioning situation, here are a few suggestions:

1) Wear clothes that fit well, but are a loose enough for comfortable breathing and movement. 

2) Avoid too high heels, strapless dresses, or anything too complicated to take on or off (in case you need to run to the restroom when you're nervous before your performance!). 

3) Practice performing in your clothes before your big day, so you are familiar with how everything fits and feels. 

In conclusion, I hope you realize that every performer deals with mistakes and embarrassment during the course of their education and careers. If you find yourself in an uncomfortable performing situation, realize you are just part of the club!  Try one of the strategies from this post next time you're in a performance pickle, and no matter how awkward or embarrassing something feels...

Happy Practicing!

Terri Sánchez

P.S. If you're a musician that needs some more suggestions for how to let go of perfectionism and be kind to yourself, try:


P.P.S. Feel free to email me at anytime with comments, questions, or requests for future posts!