Surviving Unsuccessful Performances

Welcome to a much delayed, but very thoughtful, Flute Friday.


Bad performances happen to everyone. From young students performing Hot Cross Buns at a studio masterclass to orchestral flutists sweating their way through Stravinsky’s Fire Bird Suite to legendary solo artists such as James Galway performing the greatest works ever composed for the flute, every musician has a story or two of a performance gone dreadfully wrong. The frustration, the anger, the tears, the overwhelming self-doubt and the inner voices that seem to shout “FAILURE” as you disassemble your instrument are often deafening. These thoughts and feelings, however, are all false notions of your true capabilities as a musician and are solely based on one performance under one unique circumstances frozen under one temporary moment in time. It is sometimes difficult to remember to relax under these circumstances and ground your negative thoughts in this reality. The aftermath that follows a bad performance may also be difficult to manage. Friends, family, colleagues and even audience members may sense your disappointment and do their best to minimize the importance of the performance or the degree to which it was unsuccessful but your inner dialog may be suggesting that you did not prepare adequately, do not know how to control yourself or, in some cases, just are not that great of a musician. How do we silence these thoughts and come back to our truth? How does one pick themselves up by the bootstraps after not performing up to their own capabilities? How do we properly learn from our bad experiences?


Today’s blog is a very personal one as this past weekend I gave a very poor performance at a masterclass. My sound and technique crumbled under my own nervousness and I stood stiffly and ashamed as the host told me I did not quite know the score yet (which I knew not to be true as earlier that morning I was walking around the stage practicing my piece from memory, a work that I have been playing for years and knew inside and out). I have only had a small handful of terrible performances throughout my career but all of them have been memorable and very difficult to process in constructive ways. I am hoping this blog will help all of us learn how to silence the voices that lead us astray after an unsuccessful performance and transform moments of failure into precious examples of how we can improve and truly perform to the best of our abilities in the future.


Study Your Triggers.  What makes you afraid to perform? Are you afraid that you will not be perfect? Are you afraid to disappoint a particular conductor or a teacher? Are you afraid you will not win the job or the chair you really want? Sit down with a pen and paper and write down all of your fears regardless of their size and look objectively at your list (if you have a difficult time being objective about your playing, ask a spouse, parent, teacher or friend to look at your list). Are any of these items unrealistic (for example, will California really break off into the Pacific Ocean if you have a memory slip during your performance of the Chaminade Concertino?). Those are the fears that you can eliminate right away! From the items that remain on your list, ask yourself “Why?”. Why are you afraid to disappoint your conductor? Will you lose your job or your chair? What will that mean to you? Why do you want to impress at a masterclass? Are you looking for recognition or are you trying to recruit more students to your studio? Finally, ask yourself how truly important these things are to you. Are there other ways you can obtain your goals rather than relying on one performance? Chances are the answer is yes. And if your goal is simply to play the best you can for yourself and anything less is unacceptable, ask yourself why. Why are mistakes unacceptable? Study the motivations behind your fears and you may discover that they are either unfounded or that you are simply putting too much pressure on yourself to achieve goals using a single performance that can be achieved by other means or in other performance scenarios.


Change your reaction to fear and disappointment. Did you know that we all have the ability to choose how we react to everything we encounter in our lives? Think about this for a minute. You have the ability to select to be happy when you open your email inbox and find a bill for $500 from the phone company. You can also change your reaction to a particularly difficult person in your life by simply deciding not to let their emotions change the state of your thoughts or feelings. The same can be said about your reaction to the fears listed above. As soon as you encounter each of these fears, stop yourself from habitually reacting with fear and consciously decide to accept your circumstances and change your approach. For example, if a particular passage in your music always seems to crash and burn when you perform for others, change your reaction to this passage by concentrating less on the individual pitches and more on the continuity of the melody. Sing through the notes rather than sweating through the rhythms. If it is the stage you fear, accept your environment and remind yourself that your surroundings do not control your musical ability. Say no to your fears and select a different interpretation to your individual performance challenges.


Give yourself permission to fail. As I reflect on the events of last weekend, I realize that psychologically I was not allowing myself permission to fail. Somewhere along the line I had convinced myself that I MUST play well. Mistakes were not permitted. This is obviously where I went wrong. Allowing ourselves room to make mistakes during a performance alleviates the pressure we put on ourselves to play perfectly and, ironically, our performance improves. Experiment with this in your next practice session. Select a difficult passage in one of your pieces or an excerpt that you struggle to play perfectly (Stravinsky or Prokofiev for example) and give yourself permission to make mistakes. What often happens is that the harder your try to make mistakes the more your performance actually improves. This approach is one of the greatest stress relievers because it silences the perfectionist in all of us. When we realize we do not have to perform perfectly, we can allow our music to truly speak to our audiences.


Accept that bad performances happen to everyone and learn from your mistakes. Okay, so you had a bad performance. What’s next? After a pint of Ben and Jerry’s or much needed retail therapy, take a moment to regroup. Remember that bad performances happen to every musician from the novice to the experienced professional and even legendary performers. You are not alone. Do not take your momentary performance as a reflection of your true musical ability or a prediction for future musical performances. Learn from your mistakes. Reflect on what went wrong. Was it a particular passage that derailed during your performance? Did your sound change? Were you shaking? How can you change these things for future performances? There are numerous resources available both in print and on the internet addressing performance anxiety to help you come up with solutions (I have even written about performance anxiety on previous blog posts). Purchase a breathing bag and simply breathe in and out of your breathing bag before your performance. Give yourself permission to fail. Practice your piece slowly leading up to the performance and focus on the overall musical line rather than stressing out over each individual note. Mediate or practice yoga. Tell yourself to enjoy your performance regardless of the outcome. Performing should be fun and if it isn’t you might be doing something wrong.


Create a game plan for your next performance. You have identified your fears, you have examined your performance, identifying what went wrong, and have researched ways to address your anxiety and improve any musical weaknesses for future performances. The final step is to come up with a game plan for your next performance. Create a performance checklist or Cheat Sheet and tape this list to the inside of your music folder or keep it in a place that you will see every day. We are humans and in the heat of the moment we sometimes forget to use the valuable bits of knowledge we have collected that will improve our current circumstances. For example, my list will include items such as slow practice 1 week before performance, practice piece in isolated chunks, allow yourself permission to fail, practice inhaling/exhaling on the breathing bag, identify fears and accept current circumstances, eat a banana and hydrate prior to your performance, practice meditation or yoga on the morning of your performance, sing through your music and enjoy your performance regardless of the circumstances. What does your list look like? Remember this list and adhere to your own unique set of guidelines for your next performance.

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Finally, remember that no matter what happens, you are becoming better musician with every new performance. Accept all performances, good or bad, as learning experiences and look to the future rather than wallow in the past. The past does not determine who we are as musicians.


Have you ever had a bad performance? How did you reactions influence your playing? How did you learn from your experience? Please comment below!


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