The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music news: What do you do when you mess up a performance? Ask superstar violinist Joshua Bell, who has some great advice based on his own experience. | January 14, 2012

ALERT:  Tomorrow’s “Sunday Afternoon Live from the Chazen” features UW-Eau Claire pianist Namji Kim (below)  from 12:30 to 2 p.m. in Brittingham Gallery Number III at the Chazen Museum of Art. Her program is Lowell Liebermann‘s Sonata No. 1; Chopin‘s Ballade No. 2; and Beethoven’s “Pastorale” Sonata. The concert is free and open to the public, and will be broadcast live on Wisconsin Public Radio.

By Jacob Stockinger

When it comes to playing music for others, do you suffer from stage freight or performance anxiety?

Have you ever messed up a performance, either in a competition or in some other public setting?

Then you might appreciate some words of advice from best-selling violinist Joshua Bell (below). A friend sent along this interview, and I found it very helpful – with some qualifications that I will add later.

What Bell says seems to The Ear to be excellent advice, especially at the beginning of a performance or piece.

But what if the messing up comes in the middle or toward the end of a piece, especially along piece where beginning again is impractical?

In that case, I would turn to the tested advice of The Wise Piano Teacher.

He has students practice finding their place if they get lost or have a memory lapse. In other words, you practice recovering from failure.

And make no mistake: Mistakes and melt-downs do happen, no matter well prepared you are or how much experience you have. On a DVD, you can see the great Arthur Rubinstein (below) have a memory lapse at a recital in Moscow in the 1960s with the Chopin Sonata No. 2 – a piece he had been playing since he was a teenager, for some 70 years.

Anyway, the Wise Piano Teacher has students start practicing a piece at various places in the composition – not always at the beginning. He has students find islands of refuge so to speak — where they can pick up and resume if they dropped off – and not either embarrass themselves or start all over again, which sadly can lead to repeating the same mistake or having the same memory lapse.

Of course, after the performance, you have to go back and practice the specific passage where the mistake occurred many times until you know it thoroughly – and also the parts they lead into it and out of it, so that you practice continuity. You can use mistakes as a diagnosis of what you need to do right – or did wrong before.

Plus, I think some people suffer from such anxiety that they are just not meant by their temperament to be public performers. Maybe beta-blockers or sticking to playing in private can help them.

Still, Bell’s point about accepting, admitting and even embracing the mistake and even defeat and then finding yourself relaxed and liberated and even more creative is well taken and can be reassuring.

I would only add that, in my experience, most members of the audience, including even the most severe music critics, respect and even envy the performer.

Performers would do well to remember that the audience wants them to succeed and is pulling for them. Individual audience members would usually rather be on stage making a wrong note than sitting in the audience listening to a right one.

Have you ever had an experience similar to Bell’s?

What words of advice about recovering from a botched performance do you have to share with others?

The Ear wants to hear.

And so do a lot of nervous but outstanding musicians.


  1. I once heard a fine female violist who frequently performed with my son, an almost world-class violinist, stop during a public concert performance. I’m unsure exactly how she resumed but recall that she did & completed the piece admirably. Afterward, I told her that she demonstrated true grit in continuing and finishing as she did; that one with less intestinal fortitude would have left the stage in tears. As the former principal trombonist of the Philadelphia Orchestra, Henry Charles Smith, once said, “Everyone makes mistakes. Truly world-class players are defined by how they react when mistakes happen.”

    Comment by buppanasu — January 16, 2012 @ 12:09 pm

    • Hi Larry,
      A great anecdote with a very applicable definition of what makes a world-class or at least brave performer.
      Thank you for reading and replying so personally.

      Comment by welltemperedear — January 16, 2012 @ 12:21 pm

  2. Not to mention that much of the audience (unless it is an audition or competition) does not know the piece as well as you do. You can fool all of the people some of the time, some of the people all of the time… (I think someone before me said that, though he wasn’t a musician.) (Writing from the campus of Indiana University during auditions for the Jacobs School of Music.)

    Comment by Steve Rankin — January 14, 2012 @ 7:41 am

    • Hello Steve,

      I enjoyed your comments on Jacob’s Well-Tempered Ear site. I auditioned @ IU about 1964 for grad school but didn’t get in. Thomas Beversdorf was tbn instructor @ the time. Good luck to you.

      Larry Retzack

      Comment by buppanasu — January 16, 2012 @ 12:13 pm

  3. Hello Jacob,
    Memory lapses and foibles are definitely a part of the game. In fact I’ll be performing Schubert’s Impromptu in Eb today at my birthday party and I am incredibly nervous because though I am a pro flutist and piano enthusiast, I haven’t performed piano in AGES. I wouldn’t be surprised if I lapse at some point.

    Even though the flute is my main instrument, I’m not immune from memory lapses on that either. In fact I had a huge black out at my graduation recital on a piece that I knew so well that I could have written it out for you. It took me a while to get over that.

    I recently interviewed cellist John Sant Ambrogio about his new book, The Day I Nearly Destroyed the Boston Symphony and Other Stories. We talked about all sorts of things, especially dealing with mistakes in performances. The book was a fun read and offers lots of insight about how common mistakes are in making music and how it needn’t be the end of the world. You can check out the interview and links to the book here if you like:

    Best Regards,
    Kerry Lendi

    Comment by Classical Music — January 14, 2012 @ 3:02 am

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