March 04, 2022
Nobody’s perfect, and nowhere is that more evident than during a live performance. Whether it’s a low-key acoustic set or a full-on monster rock show, it’s a guarantee – something will go wrong. That may be half the fun of live music!
One of the keys to mastery on the stage is handling mishaps well, so we’ll go over a few tips for weathering mistakes and other stage guffaws.
First things first – relax. Take a deep breath and continue breathing. The physical act of a nice deep breath helps to calm panic.
If you go into a performance expecting total perfection, it can be overwhelming. Not only does that attitude make even small mistakes seem like they’re the end of the world, it can tighten a performer up and lead to stage fright, making those mistakes more likely. If this is you, try changing your mindset. Instead of thinking your job is to be perfect – or even good! – think of your job as connecting with your audience. This mindset lets you be more vulnerable, and since you’re not trying to hide anything, mistakes don’t matter as much.
The better prepared you are, the easier it is to get back on track when you flub something. Knowing songs intimately and being capable of coming back in wherever you left off is really helpful there. It’s helpful also to actually prepare for mistakes and distractions ahead of time. Have a plan for big disasters, practice making small mistakes and adjusting on the fly, and even work on distraction exercises to keep you sharp.
Probably the most common advice for dealing with mistakes is to keep going and don’t let on that you made a mistake. In reality, few mistakes are noticed by audience – even if they’re experts. That’s because from the audience’s point of view, what matters is the entire performance – not each and every note. So, if you hit one wrong note, there’s no reason to let on that anything was even wrong. Some performers (especially in jazz) advise playing mistakes again to make it seem like they’re on purpose. That method has led to plenty of amazing new inventions!
Sometimes a mistake is too big to ignore, say when the whole band train wrecks the start of a song. In those cases, refer back to vulnerability and connectedness. Mess ups like this are actually a great opportunity to endear yourself to your audience by laughing with them about it. In fact, some performers have been known to manufacture mistakes for expressly this purpose.
Dwelling on mistakes is the best way to send yourself into a spiral and come crashing down, halting the show. Once you’ve moved past a mishap, best to just move on and be in the moment.
Sometimes a stage mishap isn’t a musical mistake, but simple Murphy’s Law. Guitar strings break, power goes out, bodies fall from the rafters. None of these things are your fault, so try not to feel guilty or upset about these things. Follow the same protocol you do for mistakes. Breathe, prepare for gear mishaps ahead of time by having contingencies and practicing, and ignore small issues that you can move through. When a gear failure halts the show, communicate with the audience and adjust.
If house sound goes down, awesome, it’s a great opportunity for a special intimate acoustic moment. If a guitar goes south, let the audience know there will be a little break and replace it. And of course, if something really egregious happens and you have to stop altogether, communicate clearly, be gracious, and come back another day.
Mishaps on stage happen. They’re often the coolest part of the story later. So, there’s no reason to freak out about them – just go with the flow and let the show go on!
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"Make a joyful noise unto the Lord all of the earth; make a loud noise and rejoice and sing praises. Sing to the Lord with the harp and the voice of the psalm." - Psalm 98:4-5