How does it feel when you make a mistake in performance?
You look out at that sea of silent faces. They’re judging you, waiting to see what mistake you’ll make next. Maybe they’re slightly disappointed – but they’re not surprised.
It’s easy to feel this way – most musicians do – but that’s really not how it works at all…
Most musicians put way too much emphasis on mistakes
Don’t get me wrong.
It’s important to spend a good chunk of your practice time working to reduce the number of mistakes that you make in performance.
I’m not saying that you shouldn’t do that. Or that you shouldn’t care at all when you make a mistake.
But there’s so much more to a good performance than not making any mistakes.
Be aware of your mistakes when you perform, but don’t focus on them to the exclusion of everything else.
So, why do you care so much about mistakes?
Some of it comes from inside you – it’s part of that drive to improve. This is vital in the practice room, but you need to be able to turn it off in performance.
But a lot of this focus on mistakes is because you feel external pressure. It’s a reaction to how others see your mistakes.
And, here, your mind chooses to take an unfortunate short-cut.
It doesn’t have the facts, so it makes assumptions about how others see your mistakes. And those assumptions are often severely warped.
And it doesn’t tell you it’s doing this – so the chances are that you’ll accept those (wrong!) assumptions as the truth.
We’re going to correct a few of the most common misconceptions now. Understanding these will help you:
- Reduce self-criticism so you get more enjoyment from performing
- Stop holding yourself to such high standards (this, in turn, will reduce anxiety)
- Be less tempted to dwell on past mistakes (this makes it easier for you to stay in the moment and leads to better playing)
People pay less attention to you than you think
Throughout life in general – and particularly when you’re up on stage performing – it feels as though other people are watching everything you do closely.
It feels that way. But it’s not the case.
It turns out that everyone spends most time thinking about themselves. So, when you think they’re paying attention to you, chances are their thoughts are elsewhere instead.
And the science backs this up 100%. Studies show that people in embarrassing situations consistently overestimate how much attention others are paying to them. In fact, the phenomenon is so well-known that it has a name: the Spotlight Effect.
And what’s really interesting is that this still holds in formal performance situations.
Sounds unlikely, right?
The audience have chosen to be there for one reason only: to hear the performance.
They’re sat in silence. You’re the one up there in the spotlight. And your music is the sole focus of attention.
In this situation, surely, they’ll drop the preoccupation with themselves – just for a bit – and follow every note you play.
It turns out not.
A surprising number of people – for a surprisingly large part of the performance – still have their thoughts elsewhere.
Maybe going back over what happened a few hours earlier. Or thinking about what they’re planning to do once the performance is over.
And that’s just the start. Even the people who are paying attention react to your mistakes way less than you think.
Audiences are bad at recognising mistakes when you DO make them
You’re familiar with the music.
You know exactly how you want to play it.
You know immediately whenever something doesn’t quite come out right.
Most of the audience don’t have a clue about any of those things. A lot of “mistakes” will sail way over their heads (as long as you don’t telegraph them by stopping playing in disgust, making a terrible face, or something like that).
Don’t waste your time worrying about mistakes that most people will never even realise were there. Put your effort, instead, into getting the music across with as much passion as you can manage.
Now, you’d think that any serious musicians in the audience will notice all your mistakes.
They will be aware of more, but they’ll still fall a surprisingly long way short of the number you notice.
There’s even some research that suggests that musicians who know the piece you’re playing will still spot many times fewer mistakes than you do.
It won’t feel that way at the time. You’ll cringe at flaws which seem to spoil the performance.
But trust that the majority of these won’t even register as issues with the audience.
You mainly notice the bad bits
There’s a related point here.
It may feel like you’re being objective, but your judgement when you’re performing is actually horribly flawed.
We’ve already seen that you immediately spot all the imperfections in your performance while the audience doesn’t notice most of them. In a similar way, you hold onto the memory of the bad things much better than the good things.
This means that your perception of how the performance is going tends to be bleak.
Your memory gets stuffed with lots of “mistakes” and there aren’t many good bits to balance them out. This is a problem because it makes the mistakes seem more of a big deal than they really are.
If you were getting the whole, balanced picture then the mistakes would be set against a whole raft of good things that you’re currently not giving yourself credit for. They wouldn’t seem such an issue.
Trust that this is the case when you perform – even if it doesn’t feel like it.
The audience, on the other hand, focuses on the good bits
As listeners, rather than performers, their memory works the other way round.
They’re there to enjoy themselves.
They want to see things go well. To have a good time.
In short, they’re on your side.
Their mental filters are set up to pay attention to good moments and tune out the bad ones. Pretty much the opposite of yours.
And so the magic moments in your performance stay with them easily.
They forget the flaws quickly.
When it gets to the end of the performance, they’ll have a very different perception of how it went than you do.
While your memory is focused on areas where you could have done better, their memory will be filled with the highlights.
Test this out for yourself
Think of some performances you’ve been to recently.
Can you remember noticing the performers make any mistakes?
If so, did you care about the mistakes at the time?
And, if I hadn’t specifically asked you to think about them, would those mistakes have come to mind when you remembered the performance?
You’ll probably find that your attitude to other people’s mistakes is much less harsh than the attitude you have to your own mistakes.
That friendlier attitude is exactly how people see YOUR mistakes.
Bear all this in mind as you come up to your next performance.
Does it make you approach things differently?
Can you be a bit easier on yourself knowing that any mistakes are not such a big deal for those who will be listening to you?
Once you realise that the audience aren’t judging you on every mistake, it frees you up to relax and enjoy it more.
And, interestingly enough, you’ll often find that you end up making fewer mistakes as a result.
Does this change the way you look at your own mistakes? Have you realised that you judge others’ mistakes very differently to your own? Let me know in the comments below.