During a performance, all manner of different things can happen that might derail your show. Dealing with them professionally and casually with an absolute minimum of disruption to the concert is critically important. Strings break. Mics fail. Bows lose hair. Lights go out. Bugs bite. Sweat on the glasses. Phones ring (that’s a new one these days). People sneeze, cough, and talk. And those are just the normal problems.
The most important thing you can do is quietly deal with it and try as hard as you can not to stop. Stopping tells the audience something went wrong. It confirms it for anyone who might be wondering if something was up. For the most part, an audience will not notice a missing note here or there or a botched entrance that is quickly fixed. If you stop and start cursing your instrument and anything within reach, you’ve just told the audience that not only did you screw up, but you can’t keep your composure when something goes wrong.
If stopping is unavoidable (broken string or the like), you must handle it with grace and poise.
A little humor won’t hurt either. When I was in music school, I attended a fun 5-week chamber music festival in Vermont each summer. At one of the performances, some buddies of mine were playing the Smetana String Quartet and right as they were about to start the slow movement, an enormous bug landed on the first violinist’s bow. Now, we’re in Vermont where they don’t use pesticides on their farms so you can imagine how gigantic this bug was. It was like some sort of X-men, mutant mosquito or something. And, just as the beautiful and delicate 3rd movement of the piece was about to start, it buzzed in and landed on the guy’s bow. Without batting an eye, he turned to the audience and said, “Wow, that thing is big enough to carry passengers.” Then he shook it off and when the laughter died down, they finished the piece. They could have easily ignored the thing and played, but it would have been a distraction, so they handled it with humor and care.
My own game-changing performance catastrophe happened when I was 18 years old. I was playing a recital in my home town as the result of winning a competition. I was already in college, but I came home for a weekend to perform and then headed right on back. The piece was Brahms’ A Major Sonata and all of my friends from high school were there, along with my old private teacher, and even my high school orchestra director.
So, I get an A from the piano and start to tune. My A is a little sharp so I tug on the string a little. Tugging the string is a way to slightly lower the pitch without having to mess with the pegs (especially on a hot and humid September afternoon). Well, I tugged a little too hard and pulled the string right out of the groove on the bridge. This isn’t a giant problem, but the sound it makes when you do that is very scary. To make matters worse, the audience let out a gasp when it happened that only made it seem worse.
I froze. I completely lost my composure and fumbled about trying to tune my instrument. I got the string back in place and tuned up, but as we all know, time stands still when you are on stage and something unexpected happens. It felt as though I was standing there trying to tune while the audience stared for over an hour. I quickly tuned up but did a really crappy job of it. Then, I played the sonata and played like garbage. I even had two opportunities to fix the tuning, in between the movements but I was completely lost in anxiety and just put my head down and played – terribly.
Afterword, my high school director came up and said, “I’ve never once seen you be nervous for a performance, until today. I thought you might tell a joke or something but you just froze.” He was right. I should have smiled and made a smart remark and then taken my time to fix the problem. I learned from this recital disaster and I’ve never let something like that ruin a performance since.
What it comes down to is, you have to remain calm no matter what. If you panic during a performance, you will make a minor annoyance into a catastrophic failure. Handling a problem on stage with poise and grace is the difference between a good performer and an elite one.