Monday, January 25, 2016

The Art of Making Mistakes: How to Recover From Wrong Notes, Funny Noises & Other Obvious Imperfections

This morning at 6:45am, since my husband had already woken up and headed out for a super early performance, and I have about a million and one things to do this week, I decided it was the perfect time to go to the grocery store.  After loading up my cart, I realized there was one line with a cashier and the only other option was the self service line.  Thinking that I could just ring myself up quickly and be on my way, I opted for the latter.  Just as I was almost done, I placed a box of sparkling water in the last bag, inadvertently sliding another bag a few inches to the right.  

Big mistake.  

A glass jar of salsa crashed to the floor and there was instantly a giant pool of chunky red sauce everywhere, complete with many large and small pieces of glass. The worker keeping an eye on the self service machines heard the crash and looked at me as if to say, "Really?"  

How embarrassing. 

This woman had no idea that I am a musician.  She did not know that I'm an educated professional.  She had no idea that I teach at a university and am capable of performing difficult music on stage in front of an audience.  She had no indication that I even possess an acceptable level of hand eye coordination!  In that moment, I was just the annoying lady who started her day with a big, broken, messy jar of salsa. 

This was not my broken jar of salsa, but it bears a striking resemblance!

Just like that embarrassing moment at the store this morning, making a mistake in performance, during rehearsals, or even in lessons has the potential to momentarily strip you of your identity.  Playing even one note that is obviously wrong, squeaked, cracked, ugly, or even just awkward, can instantly make you forget all the hours of practice, how much you love the piece of music you are playing, or even all the beautiful music you were just making a moment ago. If you are a serious musician, making a mistake can feel like a very shameful, unforgiveable thing...

If you let it.    

In the video below, if you skip to 7:37 and listen for a few seconds, you can hear me play a wrong note.  Not just any wrong note, but a wrong note in a famous spot of a famous piece.  Meaning, that pretty much any advanced flute player in the world knows that I played it incorrectly.  

If you have a moment to watch from 7:37 through 7:49 (a little before, during, and after the mistake), you won't notice any freak out face, awkward pausing, stopping, or even a hint of an apology!  Notice that I pretended like that was EXACTLY what I meant to play.  This is a great example of my first Mistake Recovery Tip for today's post. 

Mistake Recovery Tip #1
Pretend like what you just did was exactly what you meant to do. 

Mistake Recovery Tip #2
Instantly forgive yourself and move on with a clean slate. 

Instead of letting one mistake turn into a vicious cycle or domino effect, causing more and more mistakes because of guilt, distraction, or loss of momentum, let it roll off you as if it never even happened. This will help you have the energy and clarity to move on to the next task (found in Mistake Recovery Tip #3)!

Mistake Recovery Tip #3

Find the next beautiful thing to play, and play it extra beautifully.

Really effective music making casts a spell over the listener.  The problem with mistakes is that they have the power to break that spell.  Minimize any damage by finding the next opportunity to enhance the magic and make a special effort to play that music so beautifully that attention is drawn to the present moment instead of the memory of the mistake.  This keeps the magical, musical atmosphere alive! 

Summary & Bonus Tip:

All three of my Mistake Recovery Tips are meant to be used "in the moment" during performances.  By pretending like you meant to play what you played, instantly forgiving yourself for the mistake, and playing the next musical moment extra beautifully, you can keep the magic of the music alive.  However, the best part of making a mistake comes after the performance, rehearsal, or "run-through" in your lesson.  When you use your mistake as a clue to the next musical lesson you need to learn, you will have an amazing, reliable system for self growth as a performer.  

As for me, from now on, for the rest of my life, I will always pay special attention during those low notes in the cadenza of the third movement of the Ibert Concerto AND be extra careful when dealing with food products in glass jars!

Happy Practicing!

Terri S├ínchez

P.S. If you'd like to read more about how to handle embarrassing performance moments, try Coughs, Mistakes & Wardrobe Malfunctions: What to Do When it Happens to You!