Making the most of a bad situation

As I settle in for my 5 hour train ride from Washington D.C. to New Haven I am thinking about the performance last night. It was not a soul crushing disaster, but it was far from my best performance. I had memory slips, some pretty poor phrasing in a couple of new pieces and I generally felt unprepared. There are many reasons for these types of performances, some factors being in our control and others not. The important thing, however, is to make the most of it and don’t become fixated on negatives. There is little to be gained from chastising yourself inwardly or outwardly, but there is a lot to lose.

I had a bad habit several years ago of sharing my frustrations and self critique with people after the concert. The day I realized that this was a behavior that I needed to change was when a kind member of the audience came up to me and paid me a wonderful complement.  She told me that she saw …*insert famous classical guitarist here* live in concert and thought my performance was better! I proceeded to tell her how wrong she was and how terrible my concert was. This was bad for several reasons. Not only was I undermining this person’s artistic judgment I was also ruining their memory of the concert. Furthermore, after berating myself for a little while, I found out that this person organized a concert series in Europe… whoops. So all I really achieved through my negativity was negative results. Since then I have been working on my outlook following all performances, good and bad, and I have come up with some ideas that I follow and you may consider trying if you suffer from a similar “Eeyore effect”

Just because we might feel disappointed with our performance doesn’t mean that everybody was.

Our perception,  from the performer‘s point of view, as to how a concert went is severely distorted through our own subjective perception. Unrealistic expectations, fears, stress and a predominant focus on the negatives means that we are likely to be a poor judge of how a performance came across to the audience. One audience member might be attending their first guitar concert, one might be out on a first date and has more on their mind that just your Scarlatti, one might be a seasoned musician, one might be your brother… you get the picture. Point is, people will respond to your performance in different ways for different reasons and if they enjoy it, don’t sabotage yourself, and them, by taking away from that enjoyment. Accept compliments with gratitude and humility. It will make everyone concerned feel better.

I saw the sign

In regards to practice and repertoire concerts are invaluable insights into what needs more work. If you missed some passages, lost good tone during difficult passages or felt tense in your hands after long pieces, you should take note of these things and address them in your practice sessions. The famous line “it sounded better in the bedroom” highlights the fact that normal practice sessions are void of some crucial aspects that we need to address in our playing. Namely, performance anxiety. Just because a passage is working when you are warmed up and calm doesn’t mean that it will work in the concert hall. So treat these slips in performance as valuable insights to what needs work.

Get a grip

Was it really that bad? Probably not. And if it was? So what! Negativity can breed fear, anxiety, stress and it is an easy hole to fall into. Confidence on stage is an elusive trait and you are definitely not going to attain it through self deprecation. Focus on what was good about the performance, think about compliments you received and give yourself some positive affirmations.

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5 Responses

  1. We spend months examining our music, breaking into the smallest chunks and learning to understand every inch of music. The audience gets a few minutes. In the end they just want the flavor and a good taste, chances are, we give a good show most of the time.

  2. Chan Joe says:

    You accurately captured the biggest issue I encounter when practicing to prepare for a recital. I cannot tell from my practicing at home whether I really have the piece down as I can play the piece perfectly at home, yet will nevertheless make mistakes when playing the recital, presumably due to the anxiety of playing in front of people. I would like to know: (1) how to practice to ensure that am ready to play the piece in a recital setting; and, (2) how can I know if I am really ready to play the piece in a recital setting when I am consistently playing the piece flawlessly at home?

    • Pat Doherty says:

      I took Suzuki guitar teacher training and learned a very valuable tool for performance preparation. It is called “the distraction game.” It really works, because usually what causes your errors in public performance is your own distraction – of yourself, by yourself – or occasionally, of outside noises or other conditions. The game is very simple. You need a volunteer. The volunteer’s job is to make distracting, unexpected movements and sounds while you are performing your piece. Your job is to continue playing no matter what notes you drop… if you make it to the end without stopping, that is considered a “win,” even if you leave out an entire section. Why? Because you applied a real life solution to the situation and kept your performance on track – which is the goal and not “perfection.” If the volunteer distracts you to the point of your stopping in the middle of your piece for a noticeable length of time, they “win.” I had kids playing for Alzheimer patients who were able to focus on what they were doing despite shouts and cries of distress and elevators opening and closing. They were proud of trying out the distraction game in a real life situation, and because of their practise with it, were able to keep their performances on track. Use the distraction game with a quiet volunteer as well, for example, staring at you without moving a muscle, perhaps while frowning… and of course, a sound or video recording device can also be used in place of your distracting volunteer — at least until you get used to it. I hope this will be helpful to you, I know it works very well for me and my students.

    • Simon says:

      Hi Chan Joe,

      I think something we forget to do is practice performing. By that I mean actually organizing performances so we can get used to that feeling. If there is a very important performance coming up, perhaps you want to perform the recital for some friends or colleagues first. Even perfuming in front of a video camera makes you feel different. I think there are plenty of ways to prepare in the practice room, but none of them will replace getting up in front of people. Good luck!

  1. March 28, 2010

    […] Making the most of a bad situation ( […]

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