Recovering from a ‘less than perfect’ performance

March 22nd, 2013 by

I remember being told once by a recorder player that early in their career they analysed every performance and beat themselves up relentlessly over every wrong note. She told me that after every performance she would pull out the score and circle the mistakes she had made (I can only imagine how damaging this would be to her self esteem, seeing the mistakes circled on the score she was practicing with for her next performance). One night after a performance of a Vivaldi concerto, a member of the orchestra pointed out that playing three wrong notes out of the hundreds/thousands in the score was nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, if you achieved 97% or 98% in any other endeavour, most people would be positively delighted. So why are classical musicians such perfectionists, and how can we prepare our students for the inevitable mistakes that happen during performance?As the teacher, I know that I need to guide students with repertoire choice. I want students to perform pieces that they enjoy playing, that they are confident playing, and that extend their skills. I also need to monitor their repertoire choices to ensure that the lead up time to the performance is relative to the difficulty of the piece.

I also help the students decide on ‘reset’ points in the score prior to the performance. These points might be the start of a new section, or even the start of a new phrase after a particularly difficult passage. They are moments where the player consciously acknowledges that they must begin afresh in their mind. No matter what has happened in the previous section, they now have to start thinking in the moment, rather than worrying about the past.

To reinforce these refresher points, we practice with them in the lesson. Sometimes I make the students make deliberately hilarious mistakes to work on this (they LOVE this part of performance preparation!).  I also get them to record themselves playing at home (as that often evokes the same perfectionist attitude that we feel in performance), and ask them to use the reset points for this also.

However even with all the preparation in the world, it is still impossible to give the perfect performance every time. So how to do you prepare students for the inevitable? How can you help them bounce back a ‘less than perfect’ performance and how do you help them silence that voice inside their head?

I start by asking the student to give an honest assessment of their preparation. Did you put in enough preparation time? If so, did you spend that preparation time on the parts of the piece that needed attention? I know my students often practice the ‘good bits’ of a piece, and neglect to practice the difficult sections. Was it a problem with a particular aspect of your technique? If so, it’s time to work out an action plan with your teacher to improve that aspect of your technique.

Did you over practice? Sometimes it is best to just relax and let a piece ‘sit’ with you. Spend time with the score, away from your instrument. Spend time imagining the piece in your head. Listen to other interpretations of the piece. Sometimes the time spend away from your instrument is the most valuable.

I also help students identify the positives in their performance. For every negative that they give me, they are required to tell me one positive assessment of their performance. Did you open with a sense of conviction? Did you portray the mood well? Did you recover from your mistake with ease and grace? Did you bow and walk off the stage with confidence afterwards?

Positive action cures fear, hence the old adage about ‘getting back on the horse’. So after a particularly damaging performance experience, I always try to create friendly, casual performance opportunities for my students. It might be a ‘share your work in progress’ lesson with two or three other students. Calling something a ‘work in progress’ takes away the need for it to be perfect. It might be the parents inviting the grandparents around to hear the student play. Or it might be a studio recital, where the atmosphere is casual and the student is encouraged to play something a little easier and safer than I would usually require of them. These opportunities need to happen within a relatively short time frame of the initial performance to quickly silence the negative voice inside the students head.

If you have any suggestions for how you help students overcome a less than perfect performance, please leave a comment below.

Posted in Performing, Practicing, Teaching Tips

About the Author

Nicole Murphy
Nicole Murphy is a pianist and composer residing in Queensland, Australia. She has been teaching both piano and composition privately and in schools for over 8 years, with students currently ranging in age from four years to eighty-five years. She holds a Bachelor of Music (Honours Class I) from the Queensland Conservatorium of Music and is currently working towards a Masters of Music. As a freela... [Read more]

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