Rebounding from Bad Performances

Poor performances can send shock waves through our system. Any of us who have played music for a long time can probably share multiple horror stories in regards to performances. The culprits range from things outside of our control to things we are directly responsible for. Either way, it usually feels horrible.

Between my own disappointing performances and ones by my students, I’ve found there are some things that can help take the edge off of these painful experiences. There are also several things we can extract from the experience to actually improve our playing and future performances. When I look back at my playing and teaching career, some of the most sustained periods of growth came after the worst performance experiences.

Combing over the aftermath of these performances can be tough to navigate. On one hand, we don’t want to beat ourselves or our students up because morale is probably pretty low. On the other hand, we need to be honest and reach truths that often point to shortcomings in our preparation.

The best way I’ve found to deal with this in teaching and performing is to not focus very much on the actual performance. That was probably the least significant moment in the series of moments that led to the wheels falling off. I often say to myself or my students something like, “OK, we can’t change what happened. But we can change what led up to what happened so that the next opportunity goes way better.”

This usually takes the pressure off of everyone and starts paving the way for something constructive to come out of the situation.

I’ll then create a timeline working backwards from the performance. If I’m teaching, I’ll document where the student got “off schedule” verbally and we’ll discuss these benchmarks until we are on the same page. I usually keep notes and send emails after each lesson to students – so it’s pretty easy to build a timeline if we need to.

If it’s just me, I’ll either go through the scenario in my head or write down some points where I fell out of sync with the planned timeline – or when I simply dropped the ball.

For this post I’m going to focus on preparation. There are other approaches for nerves, poor staging/instruments and other things that can derail a performance. There will be more posts on this.

After creating a timeline that goes back several weeks or months, we can then build a timeline going forward. My timelines are different than the ones I had as a piano student. I always found that having students work on a piece for several weeks or months so that they could have it ready to perform by a certain superficial or even tangible date was not fair to them or the music. It’s not fair to us as the performer either.

I’m always trying to eliminate the “switch” mentality. The idea that once you get a piece or program up to a certain point, it’s time to get it ready to perform… We flip the “switch”.

Instead, I try to treat each lesson like a performance. The student is always held to the same standard they are when they are performing on a stage. I try to make every experience at the instrument very consistent. Even if they’ve just been introduced to a new piece in a lesson – we start performing immediately. If we are just reading one hand at a time on the first phrase, they are expected to perform it. There is never a time when we go through the motions or get our bearings. If they can only play the first page, they understand that there is no waiting until they are ready… They are always ready to make music to their potential no matter where they are in the process of learning a piece or program.

Beyond that, they (and we) should practice everything like it’s a performance. Scales, Hanon, Chopin, Duke Ellington or whatever else they are working on are all part of the daily performance. By setting that standard on the first phrase we learn, on our warm-up scales, on our improvisation exercises – we get a clear idea of what our potential is day in and day out. It’s not ok to flip the switch at the lesson either, it just stays on even when we’re home alone.

If we perform every time we practice, then we get in the habit of playing with all of our energy, emotion and mental focus. If every lesson is treated like a performance, we will be ready when the performance moves to a traditional venue or format. We stack each of these personal practice sessions and lessons up so the performance is just another day.

Treating performances like they are a finish line is often one of the main reasons we fail to live up to our potential when performing. If we simply treat every day like it’s performance day, we will always be ready and sound at or close to our potential.

Click the links below to read the other posts in this series:

Part Two: Perfection as a Way of Life

Part Three: Sound Bad as a Daily Practice