My passion is to help others in the community, young, old, and everyone in between, find relevance and joy in learning, performing or listening to classical music.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

The myth of the perfect performance

© RedDaxLuma -
I will insist on continuing to work with young musicians because it is from them that I get a glimpse into their minds and reminders of what I so often take for granted as a more seasoned player.  Such was the case this past week as I was rehearsing with a singer in preparation for the ever-so-popular jury week.

Rehearsal after rehearsal, performance after performance, I am amazed at how young singers evaluate their own performances.  So often a "successful" run-through or performance means one thing and one thing only - they have sung all the correct words in the correct order.  Who cares if it was heartfelt, gripping, and musical?  If a word gets jumbled or, gasp, made up, forget it!  Throw in the towel!  Vow to never perform again!  Beat yourself up!  Sure that might sound dramatic but that's what a lot of young singers feel which means I end up spending a lot of my time trying to convince them otherwise.

Which brings me to the rehearsal this week.

We were rehearsing and she had the inevitable word stumble which caused her to stop mid-song.  Seeing as juries are right around the corner I decided it was time for a little intervention.  I said to her, "Don't worry about mixing up a word or two in a song.  It really, really doesn't matter once you get out there onto that stage.  It happens to every singer including all those teachers that will be hearing your jury next week.  They've all messed up words."  Her response to me?  "Right. I need to remember that most professionals forget a word once or twice in their career." 

Did you catch that?

"Once or twice in their career."

At that point I saw in my mind's eye a giant, neon flashing sign that said, "LEARNING OPPORTUNITY!!" 

Smiling I said, "Oh my...try once or twice in every performance!  How's that for a mind-blowing fact?!"  

She genuinely looked surprised at this little reality check which then provided another reality check for me.  It is so easy for professional musicians to forget that we are, in essence, fooling our audiences a lot of the time, especially when we're truly wearing our hearts on our sleeves when we perform.  That is the magic of great performing, right?  The little details no longer matter when what we're delivering is the gift of live music-making, great music, and ourselves.  But the problem with this can also be that young musicians have no idea how human we are, that mistakes are an inevitability, and that much of our skill as professionals has to do with not sweating the things that aren't "perfect."  I'm not quite sure what a solution to this would be.  Perhaps we could have a scoreboard onstage and at the end of every piece it could show the percentage of notes and words we got correct but then that's focusing on the wrong thing, isn't it?  Because it really doesn't matter!  

I think that part of the solution is for professionals, especially those working with young musicians, to be transparent with their students about their own performances - to share what might not have been "perfect" but to do so without attaching any guilt or remorse about it.  I also think it's important for us to focus on the things that do matter more when we're reflecting on performances, either our own or someone else's.  Did we feel like we connected with the audience?  Did we enjoy the music ourselves?  Did we make music?  Did we have fun?  It's the answers to questions such as these that can lead to pride and a feeling of success which can then lead to a desire to get back onto the stage to experience it all over again...and again...and again.

In an effort to help students get a more realistic view of my own performing I have, for the past three years, required my accompanying class students to turn pages for me multiple times during the semester.  Backstage I am very honest with them about which pieces are more troublesome than others and that make me a little more nervous; onstage they have the opportunity to see how many notes I leave out; then offstage again I share with them how I feel about the performance, not in a nit-picky way, but in a more general way.  It's been rewarding for me to do this because so many of those students seem to have gotten  better in their own performing with just going on no matter what happens.  They genuinely seem less freaked out about not being perfect which means they can focus more on what really is more important.  I think that's a better alternative than going up on stage hoping that "once or twice in a career" mistake doesn't happen.  

So let's all get a little more honest about our performances so that our students don't have the mistaken impression that we aren't human.  We would all benefit, I think, from us allowing ourselves and young musicians to be human so that music will become music again...not just "perfect" reproductions.


  1. This is so incredibly true -- and it's true for all of life. So much of life is the graceful recovery from mistakes and not the total avoidance of them. It reminds me of a marble at the bottom of a bowl versus turning the bowl over and putting the marble on the top.

    If you put the marble in the bowl and push it off center, it will oscillate a bit but gradually find the center again. If you put the marble on top of the overturned bowl and push it to one side, it rolls further away from the center and off of the surface completely.

    The first is what's called a stable equilibrium -- knock something a bit off center, and it finds its way back. The second is unstable equilibrium -- the marble is fine as long as nothing nudges it, but the second something does, whoosh. Off it goes, never to find the center again.

    One needs to learn how to get back to the center much more than how not to stray from it. All of life will knock you off center. Do you find the path again, or does that little nudge shove you hopelessly off course?

  2. I tell my students, :The only difference between my performance and yours is that I know how to cover up mu mistakes!" They are often surprised that I make mistakes and will admit to making them, too!