Contrary to popular belief, professionals make mistakes. Lots of them. It is rare that I play a concert and don’t have notes I wish I could do over. Most of my colleagues would echo these same sentiments. I know that they are going to happen so my goal is to make sure my mind and focus is in the right place so at least I am making the best mistake. Today we are going to look at some scenarios of when and why mistakes happen and try to eliminate them or at least make sure our priorities are in line so we make the best mistake.
In my mind there are two mistakes that can happen.
- Mistakes that you have control over: you theoretically could have prevented them.
- Mistakes that you have no control over: the situation was totally out of your control and there was nothing you could have done.
We can work on number 1 but the second scenario is tough to swallow. But it does happen. The ensemble moves unexpectedly. The conductor did something different and you weren’t able to adjust. There was something wrong with the instrument that you didn’t notice before the performance. The harpist moved and now you can’t see the conductor. Should I keep going? I think you get the point. We try to eliminate all variables that could prevent a good performance but sometimes the planets don’t line up and mistakes happen. I’m not going to spend a lot of time obsessing over those types of mistakes here because I have a feeling we all obsess over them an unhealthy amount already!
We can’t prevent all mistakes but how can we minimize or at least make the correct mistake? So what exactly is a correct mistake? Good question! I describe a correct mistake as a mistake that was made with the correct priorities in mind. The easiest example is a situation we have all been in. Sadly…. So, you get lost and don’t know when your next cymbal crash is. You guess, and play a loud crash, but in the wrong place. (Cue cartoon noise Wah, Wah…) Obviously we never want to be lost, but it happens. The “correct” mistake in this scenario is to either rely on cues you wrote in your part as you were preparing or simply don’t play if you are truly lost. Not playing the crash is a mistake for sure. But wouldn’t you rather miss the crash than play it two bars to soon? More examples of “correct” mistakes later.
A lot of mistakes happen due to lack of preparation. As I talked about in my post on learning how to focus, preparation is our biggest asset. The first step is learning the notes. This is obvious but should be stated as you will have little to no success not knowing your part. The next step in ensemble playing that is often over looked is knowing how your part fits into the ensemble. You can play all the right notes but if they don’t fit with everyone else, it doesn’t matter. The more you know your part and how it fits with others the better you will be at preventing mistakes.
Some mistakes can happen because of non-musical situations. The pedal on the chimes could be stuck and you not notice until you have to play. A quick check before the concert and you are good to go. A situation that happened to me recently was right at the beginning of an opera my mallets were hovering over the first notes but the conductor took more time than usual waiting for the stage before starting. I got a little nervous about making sure I was above the right notes so I looked down to double check. When I looked back up, the orchestra had started. Whoops! I jumped back on but not exactly the start you want! So the next performance I rested my mallets right on top of the first notes so I could literally watch the conductor forever and be ready to go. Lesson learned. The more experience I gain the more I try to anticipate non-musical situations like this to be prepared for. It’s a different kind of preparation but one you can develop an eye for.
Unfortunately a lot of mistakes happen because of mental fatigue or a lack of focus. You can be as ready as you can possibly be but you might be tired or just zoned out. If it is a lack of focus that is creating the mistakes then you need to work on your focusing. This is a skill that can be practiced and improved. If you are simply tired or exhausted, then you need to be aware of what you limit is and make sure you have adequate rest before a performance.
Now to the most important part of avoiding mistakes. Making sure your priorities are correct and in line. Remember a correct mistake is a mistake that was made with the correct priorities in mind. I’ll give you an example before I list some of what I think are the right priorities to have.
In the same opera I missed the opening of (doh!) I had this passage to play on glock.
The passage is obviously syncopated and is with the woodwinds. In one of the first rehearsals (luckily) I was really focused on the conductor and the winds so we would be lined up and I played the following.
Sure I missed some notes at the end but the notes I played showed I had the correct priorities in mind. I was still playing within G minor. I played the same syncopated rhythms the winds had. I played the same shape or line they had. While of course I realized immediately I had a made a mistake, it was one I could live with. In fact I would rather play what I did, together with the ensemble, than be glued to my part, play the right notes but not with the ensemble.
So what are some other priorities we should keep in mind to make sure we are making the correct mistake?
The time of the orchestra and my placement
Who I am playing with in the orchestra
The key signature
The “scale” my passage is in
The cues right before I play
The relative dynamic of the orchestra
Where the big moments are
What big beats need to line up
My role in the orchestra
Of course the goal is to play perfectly all the time. If we are honest with ourselves we know this is not possible. After I make a mistake, of course I’m upset and wish I could go back and fix it, but guess what? Not possible! That’s live music baby!! With this approach though I am able to minimize my mistakes or at least make correct ones. The better your prepare, stay focused, and have your priorities in line, the better your performances will become.