Nine reasons you might just get away with a mistake in concert

So you made a mistake on the gig yesterday. I feel your pain. We all make mistakes- I made a real howler twice in the same place on a cello gig recently and it’s been bothering me ever since.

Mistakes are a controversial and painful subject for musicians. Nobody likes making them, and nobody likes hearing them (except, occasionally in a nasty, Schadenfreude-ish way). Some people think avoiding mistakes is the most important thing a musician can do- this attitude is far too common at orchestral auditions and competitions. It creates a musical climate where caution is king. Blech! On the other hand, it’s awfully easy to become too blasé about accuracy and concentration. I knew an interesting orchestral entrepreneur who set up a recording orchestra where the musicians were encouraged to take big musical risks, and were forgiven if those risks led to mistakes because they weren’t playing safe. Over time, however, some in the orchestra used that mindset to justify a lack of preparation or focus. It became an orchestra more sloppy than brave. Mistakes can seriously get in the way of the music.

The fact is, everyone makes mistakes- even the greats. This means we’ve all got a stake in knowing how to manage our mistakes. For soloists, the stakes are incredibly high- if you want to build a solo career, you’ve got to be asked back. Some time ago, this subject came up after a concert I did when a fine soloist made a really obvious error in the concert. One of the musicians asked me after the concert if the poor chap had been “voted off the island.” Definitely not- I’ve already re-engaged them. Meanwhile, at another orchestra, a soloist from 2 years ago got in touch recently asking about a return visit. That one isn’t going to happen, even though their mistake was far less obvious (and not at all decisive in my decision). Their performance didn’t offer much musical inspiration and they didn’t seem to be enjoying working with us at the time.

So, what can you do as an orchestral player or soloist to minimize the negative impact of the mistakes you’re bound to make sooner or later? Here are a few things you can do that will always increase your chances of living to fight another day when things don’t go to plan.

9. You have a kick-ass sound. Nobody made more mistakes than Horowitz. But nobody had a sound like Horowitz. Even his worst mistakes sound better than most people’s best playing. A really special, captivating, enthralling sound is incredibly rare (and getting rarer all the time). Develop one, and people will cut you a lot more slack because they want to hear you do your thang for the sheer pleasure of it.

 8. You know when to accompany the orchestra. Dorothy Delay used to say this all the time to her violin students at Aspen. Of course, we all want to follow you, but there are times when we can’t. For instance, there are notorious places in the Rachmaninoff Piano Concertos where it’s all but impossible for anyone in the orchestra, or the conductor to hear you. The repertoire is littered with passages where your material is doubled by the woodwind- you can hear them, but, much as they want to, they probably can’t hear you. Sometimes, you can avoid a big mistake by knowing when to look like a soloist but play like an accompanist.

7. You practice slowly, softly and calmly, and are comfortable playing at all tempi. This is important for orchestral players, as any practice you do on a concert day is likely to be overheard by either your colleagues or the conductor. Whether it’s the 1st violin part in the Schumann 2 Scherzo, the trumpet solo in Mahler 5 or even the first page of Don Juan (whoever you may be), sitting on stage hacking away fast and loud sends out not only signals of social cluelessness, but warning signs of near-certain ensemble and tuning problems. If someone is warming up on the Schumann at blazing speed, or practicing the last mvt of Tchaik 4 totally “balls to the wall,” experience teaches that they’re almost certain to rush like crazy or miss things when we do it with the orchestra. Flexibility (both physical and philosophical), fluidity and clarity are things we want to work at every day. If you’re counting on talent, adrenaline and mojo to carry the day under pressure, things are bound to go wrong from time to time- you may not see it coming, but we have. Likewise for soloists- if you practice everything only at your ideal tempo, you’re likely to start missing things when you find the orchestra is dragging or rushing (as they always do) in the gig.

6. You got there early. I know, this sounds painfully obvious, but experience tells me it’s not. Once upon a time, I did two sarrusophone (not the actual instrument) concerti in consecutive weeks with different orchestras and different soloists. I’d worked with both soloists before, but both were late to their rehearsal. Although both were fine sarrusophonists, I’ve never worked with either again because the previous time I’d worked with them, they’d only just gotten to rehearsal in time. If you’re an hour early in year one and ten minutes late in year two, your colleagues might forgive your travel difficulties, and even accept that your sarrusophone was having a bad reed day. If you walked in five minutes before the downbeat last year and were ten minutes late in year two, your goose is pretty well cooked even before you squeaked that high note. One finds it hard to separate the temporal brinksmanship from the musical mistake. The musician who cuts their travel time too fine too often is often the one who doesn’t allow quite the practice time a piece requires, too. Maybe somedays they hit everything, and other days they don’t. This goes triple for orchestral musicians, too. In Britain, we all understand that there are days when the transit system collapses. Sooner or later, you’re going to be late- people will be understanding if you’ve built a track record for being reliable. Best to make sure the rest of the time, you get to the gig plenty early.

5.You allow ample mental space on concert days. Being a soloist is a funny thing. One day you’re longing, seemingly for years, for that big chance to play your concerto or sing your aria. Then, almost without warning, it’s your whole life and you’re doing it all the time. A smart soloist remembers that, even if you’re playing your 400th Mozart Clarinet Concerto, playing a concerto (or playing an orchestral concert, for that matter) is not something you can do well if your mind is elsewhere, or if you’re frazzled or fatigued. I’ve seen many a soloist come to grief when they tried to squeeze too much travel, housework or schmoozing into a concert day. I once had a cello soloist confess (almost brag) to me that he’d spent the morning of our concert building kitchen cabinets. It soon became clear his hands and head were worn out before the rehearsal even started. The concert was a travesty. Smart soloists don’t try to do too much on a concert day, and the same goes for smart orchestral players. If you’ve got a nervy solo like the first horn part in Beethoven 7, the cello solo in William Tell or the concertmaster solo in Shostakovich 5, people will be hard pressed to let you off the hook for a mishap if it’s clear you’ve been trying to squeeze ten other things into the same day. Musicians who simplify their concert days play with more focus, more engagement and more imagination- even their mistakes sound better.

4. You respond to what you hear. So many concerti live or die not just on the performance of the soloist, but on the contribution of the soloists in the orchestra. Think of the duo between horn and cello in the Shostakovich First Cello Concerto, the violin and solo cello duet in the Dvorak Cello Concerto or the contribution of the solo oboe to the Brahms Violin Concerto. The contributions your colleagues in the orchestra can make to your performance are enormous. If you can’t respond to and incorporate their ideas into your performance, they’re not likely to forget you came in just a little sharp after their solo. Play chamber music with the orchestra, and they’ll support you from the upbeat to the double bar every time. And… they’ll lift your performance to a different level. (The same goes for the members of an orchestra, too).

3. You trust your playing (or singing) to put your interpretation across. Are you a talker? A fusser? A debater? An interrupter? That’s fine, but….Maybe you don’t have to be? You might be amazed at how little some of the best soloists talk. Is this because they don’t care that the oboes are behind or that the cellos aren’t phrasing with them? No- it’s because they have the confidence that they can put their ideas across musically with such clarity and conviction that the cellos intuitively know how to phrase, and the oboes know when and how to breathe. For me as a conductor, talking is an admission of failure. It means I’ve tried to show something in a couple of different ways and it hasn’t worked. Either I’ve been unclear, or failed to get the musicians’ attention, or they’re just not on top of their parts technically and we have to practice on company time. Talking is a sign that something isn’t working as it should. The same thing goes for a soloist. Talk if you need to (please don’t sit in sulky silence because you think the conductor doesn’t approve of talking), but aspire not to need to talk. Someone like John Lill can get through a whole Brahms Piano Concerto without having to say anything but “you all sound marvellous” because their musical intent is crystal clear to the listeners on stage and off. When you have to tell us “I’m going to take time here” it can come across as if you were saying: “I’m warning you I’m going to take time here because when you hear me play it, it won’t be obvious to you that I’m planning to take time, or why I want to take time, until I suddenly slow down, so just write something in your music along the lines of “guess how much slower to play here” and be prepared for me to glare at you over the sarrusophone when we’re not together.”

2. You know the score! A mistake that’s caused because your part is the only one you’ve learned is hard to forgive. Playing or singing a solo part is only half of the soloist’s job. You must know the score- well. We’ve all seen what happens when an opera singer doesn’t know what is supposed to happen between one entrance and the next. Disaster ensues. Crack a high note? Fine. Come in early because you don’t know what the music you don’t sing sounds like? Not fine. This is so important in an orchestral audition- it’s so easy to tell if someone knows how the excerpt they’re playing fits in with the rest of the orchestra. If that knowledge isn’t there, we’ve got nothing to assess you on but accuracy. Know the score and your mistakes will at least make musical sense.

1. You can communicate an interesting musical point of view. Believe it or not, having an interesting musical point of view is, in my experience, the rarest quality in musicians, and also the most important. Anyone can be derivative, literal, formulaic or wayward. If your take on the Beethoven Violin Concerto sounds just like Mutter’s or Perlman’s but with more mistakes, then the mistakes really count. If you’re doing lots of attention-seeking “musical” stunts, any mistakes will also attract maximum attention. There’s no shortcut to an interesting, personal and engaging interpretation- you’ve got to ask a lot of questions, live with the music, study the score away from your instrument, put your repertoire in context, challenge your ideas (and especially your teacher’s ideas), feed off your colleagues and be in the moment. Once you develop a really interesting point of view, you have to find the technical means to put it across to the listener. If you can play the Bruch Violin Concerto or the Beethoven 4th Piano Concerto in a way that makes your colleagues and the audience listen with excitement and anticipation, you can probably be forgiven missing the odd run. Why only nine things on the list? Because this one counts double. Have something interesting to say about the music and you’ll always give yourself the best chance at a second chance when you need it. Cause let’s face it: we all need a second chance sooner or later.

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More from Vftp:

Some bonus tips for soloists

Top 11 tips for soloists

Brahms D minor and the Art of the Soloist

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

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8 comments on “Nine reasons you might just get away with a mistake in concert”

  1. Ed C

    On a concert in Jacksonville in the 1960’s Jose Iturbi was the soloist. Sorry, I can’t recall which concerto, but the oboe had a short passage that was repeated immediately by the solo piano. The oboist inadvertently played it in minor, rather than major. Iturbi, without missing a beat, repeated it as the oboe had played it. All of us thought it extremely gracious of him. He just laughed it off after the concert. Quite the gentleman!

  2. Kenneth Woods

    Great piece, Ken! I remember every tiny mistake I ever made – which is why I gave up playing about twenty years ago. Not a very positive outcome, I know – maybe hypnosis would help! – but reading your piece, and seeing these things in writing, makes me realise just how many of them I did in the days I was playing! I was never late, though!

  3. Christoph

    thanks for this Ken. Brilliant read. Will be sharing for all the muzo friends. Ever considered doing a vlog on the subject?

  4. Gary

    Being an organist in London in the 80s & 90s (but it’s still the same now) so much of what you had to do was last minute, with little, or no, preparation time. I was sight-reading things in public performances, including quite high-proflle events in great cathedrals. Some times you pull it off, other times not so much…There was one occasion I was booked as a late-minute dep for a big service in a central London church. I arrived, fortunately in good time, to find it was being broadcast live on Radio 4. After a while all this kind of thing begins to fray your nerves!

  5. Gary

    But then orchestras, particularly in London, virtually sight-read everything. You should do a blog comparing rehearsal times for orchestras in London with those on the continent!

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