The Secret To Remaining Calm in The Face Of Disaster

It’s every musician’s worst nightmare. Something has gone horribly wrong.

Maybe a string has snapped on your guitar. Maybe there’s a complete train wreck – the tune you’re playing falls apart totally and irreparably. Maybe one of the band members hasn’t shown up.

Or maybe they’ve shown up in such a bad state that they don’t belong anywhere near a stage.

Something beyond your control has messed everything up and there’s nothing you can do to fix it now. So how do you respond?


Do I really need to think about something so unlikely?

Serious setbacks like these don’t happen very often. Nevertheless, there are a couple of reasons why it’s really important that you feel prepared to deal with them.

Firstly, it’s good for your peace of mind. When you’re confident ahead of time that you can cope if something goes badly wrong, then you’re much less likely to worry about that scenario.

This gets even more important on those rare times when something like this actually DOES show up.

These things can become a cycle. If you’ve had a serious mishap before and handled it badly, then this creates apprehension. Future occurrences trigger bad memories and things are likely to spiral downhill.

On the other hand, if you’ve handled problems well in the past then this promotes relaxation and confidence. When you encounter something like this in the future, chances are that you’ll handle it even better the next time round. This time the spiral goes upwards.

Secondly, you probably have more of a tendency than you’d care to admit to treat minor setbacks as big disasters.

Knowing what a REAL disaster is – and being confident that you can cope with one –helps you put things in perspective.

You’ll be less likely to elevate little things into a big deal. And, if you do, you’ll react to them much better.

But how do I prepare for the unexpected?

By their very nature, serious setbacks tend to be unexpected. And they can show up in a million different ways.

I can’t predict for you exactly what event you might need to be prepared for. And, depending on exactly what has actually happened, there’s a huge range of different actions that you might need to take in response.

So, what can you do?

Well, luckily (if that’s an appropriate way to talk about disasters) the emotional impact that these setbacks have on you is typically a bigger deal than any physical issues they generate. And that emotional impact will tend to be longer-lasting as well.

And it turns out that the most helpful emotional response you can have to a serious setback is basically always the same.

You can identify and train that ideal emotional response.

Even better than that, when you manage to activate that correct emotional response.  When you stay calm, in the moment, purely focused on the music. Then, you’re in the right place mentally to choose the correct actions to take.

And those correct actions will often happen automatically – as long as you just let them happen rather than trying to force the issue.

Your Ideal Performance State is at least as much about where you are mentally and emotionally as it is about the physical side of things. If a disaster in performance kicks you into a destructive emotional space, then chances are that this will lead to poor performance. Even if you DO choose the right actions in response.

So, let’s go a bit deeper into that helpful emotional response we’re looking for.

When things go wrong, you can feel at the mercy of events

But you always have a choice about how you respond.

In fact, you always have SEVERAL choices about how to respond.

They may not be the choices that you’d like to have available. But there are always some aspects that you’re in control of.

Some of these choices are positive ways to respond to the situation, and some are negative.

This is hugely important for two reasons.

Firstly, the choices you make MATTER. You have the power to make the situation better.

Or make it worse.

Secondly, once you realise this you gain a sense of control. Possibly the most unhelpful aspect of a typical response to disaster is that you can adopt a victim mindset.

This is massively debilitating.

You feel as though things are being done TO you and you have no power to respond.

Quickly, you get to the point where you give up. You don’t care about making things better. You’re happy to let everything drift downhill – and it does.

So, what should you do instead?

Well, there are two steps.

1) Accept the things you can’t control

Unfortunately, you can’t control everything.

Before you can choose to move positively in one direction, you need to let go of the options which aren’t open to you.

Be aware that there are things you can’t change and accept this. It’s tempting to wish they were different – but this is unhelpful.

Leave them behind and turn instead to the areas where you ARE in control.

Make sure your attention is fully in the moment, rather than stuck on the setback that’s just happened.

This doesn’t mean that you have to be “happy” about those things that you can’t control.

You’re simply choosing not to be derailed by them. What we’re concerned with here is finding the response that will be most helpful to your performance.

2) Identify what you can control, and take positive action

Accepting that you can’t do anything to change the catastrophe is necessary.

But it’s not enough.

You’re not helpless. You need to make sure you avoid entering a victim mentality.

The best way to ensure this is to take some positive action – no matter how small.

This simple act underlines the fact that you have a choice. That you’re in control.

You might resolve to redouble your concentration just for the time it takes to get to the end of the tune. Maybe at that point you can think about longer-term solutions.

Or you could choose to really focus your attention on the other musicians. Take the lead by clearly and confidently communicating a plan through your body language. Or paying close attention to pick up someone else’s lead.

It might be as simple as adopting the right emotional response. Taking on, or reaffirming, a warrior mentality.

In his book, Zen Guitar, Philip Toshio Sudo tells the story of a band whose sound system blew out in the middle of their biggest song. Everything except the drums went dead.

Instead of giving up, they led the audience in a sing-along. The sound system returned soon after, but it was that moment of “disaster” which ended up being the highlight of their show. The one thing the audience would remember for months to come.

When you do the emotional work of staying positive and in the moment, this naturally leads you towards the right physical actions. Your subconscious is fantastically good at choosing the best path when it has a clear and positive overall intent set by the conscious mind.

Where does the discipline to do this come from?

All this is very easy to say. If you’ve been in this sort of situation, though, you’ll find that the temptation to react in unhelpful ways is very strong.

To fall into a victim mentality.

To wish things were different.

To focus on how UNFAIR it all is.

It takes work to get past this. And it’s an ongoing journey – if you think you’ve got it completely sorted then you’re probably setting yourself up for a nasty surprise in the future.

I’ve got four practical suggestions for you:

i) Strengthen your ability to be in the moment​

It’s much more effective to have a positive target to think about, than to try and avoid thinking about something.

Get better at focusing on the “now”, rather than thinking about the past or future.

Get better at focusing on the process of what you’re doing, rather than on the outcome.

This skill is a hugely important part of playing music even when everything’s going well.

Time working on it is time well spent.

ii) Others are judging you less than you think​

People will be much less aware of the disaster than you realise.

Even when they are aware, they don’t judge you anything like as harshly as you think. They want to see you succeed much more than they’ll be judging you.

Research shows that simply becoming aware of these facts reduces anxiety in future performances (in any arena – not just music).

iii) Your judgement in the moment is flawed

It’s simply not possible for your brain to handle all the demands of playing music, and to give its full attention to listening at the same time.

What this means is that you hear your performance differently from someone who’s only listening.

While you think you’re getting an objective measure of how well things are going, it’s actually very unreliable. And there’s a tendency for this bias to nudge things in the direction where you think things sound worse than they actually do.

Even when the bad aspects you hear in your performance are really there, there’s a natural bias to focus on the bad more than the good.

Just remember that there will almost certainly still be good aspects to the performance that you’re not giving yourself credit for.

iv) Remember who you’re doing this for

There’s an audience out there that came here to see you perform. Focus on giving them what they came for – not on how YOU feel.

Putting it all together

At the heart of all this is a simple choice.

Choose to respond positively in the face of disaster rather than focusing on how you wish things were different.

 Choose to focus on the actions you can take rather than feeling as though things are being done TO you.

Free yourself up from worrying about the physical outcome. Judge your success by the quality of your emotional response to the setback instead.

As you get better at doing this, you’ll eventually find you can go beyond just coping with adversity. You get to the state where you relish challenges as a chance to demonstrate your fighting spirit.

What are the worst disasters that have happened to you on stage? And how did you cope with them? Let me know in the comments below.