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How to handle mistakes during a musical performance: It's not always going to sound like jazz.

May 20, 2015Will Leffert,
Flight Of The Bumble Bee

Instead of a traditional Why Should I Wednesday about the design world, let's talk about music, and how to handle mistakes during a musical performance.

The most common advice I've heard to new musicians regarding the subject of making mistakes during a musical performance is that you should never show it in your face; the audience won't know the difference, as long as you don't do anything different visually (and, of course, don't stop playing).

I disagree, to a certain extent. While some mistakes can be played off well (there is a great old joke about jazz music being like any other form, but you intentionally play all the wrong notes), humanity isn't as dense as you might think when it comes to music. We listen to it constantly, for one. Two, music is like a language that many people understand at a basic level; We can sense emotion from it, and even conjure images in our heads as the music goes on (music videos just help us along). When something is played that doesn't make sense, it makes us uncomfortable.

Guy Forsyth, an amazing musician, once quoted another amazing musician (when referencing harmonica, or blues; I can't remember). I'll paraphrase it for you, but the basic gist was music is like a river, and you're seeking the resolution from it. Ever river goes somewhere; every musical phrase does the same thing. While leaving a musical phrase unresolved can create an ideal sort of tension, when done improperly, it throws off the entire vibe of the music.

Then you've got the problem facing a lot of young artists; we all started out playing music by other people. In many cases, very popular music by other people. It'll be recognized, for sure, and some may be humming or singing along as you go. Miss a word? A note? People can, and many will, notice.

What does all this mean, though? Should we apologize to the crowd? Should we allow the pain of that wrong note show on our face? Should we start that phrase over?

No. Honestly, there isn't a great solution available beyond one very important point: Know your music, and know it well. Practice. Have reference material available for words and musical phrases.

And finally, for those of you who miss notes.. Learn to improvise and work with your band. While some sour notes may be difficult to recover from, being able to play it off by resolving it properly can make a world of difference in how people interpret your performance.

If you're one of those laid back, interact with the crowd performers, then you're allowed to smile when you hit a wrong note. Include the audience in the joke. Play it off. If you're having fun, the audience should be having fun, too. Get crazy with it, even! I can't tell you how many times I've forgotten words to my own tunes and had to fake it on stage. If I've got fans in the crowd, they'll know when I smile that I'm not taking myself too seriously. On the street, I'll make a big deal out of it in the music.

Number one, though, is to never, EVER stop playing. Keep your confidence, maintain the dynamics of the song, and play through it to a proper resolution.

That's how you recover from mistakes in a musical performance.

Thanks to Wikimedia Commons for Rimsky-Korsakov's most well-known work!