Owning our Mistakes, Honoring our Mistakes, Everybody Makes

I recently performed a concert with a young artist who is going off to college to study opera.  He has dreams to then move to Europe to live and perform music.  Not only does this young man have a deep and rich bass voice but, he was also a pleasure to accompany.  Rarely do I get to play for someone who can both lead and follow an accompanist at the same time.  Many singers will either hijack a piece and force the accompanist to blatantly follow them or in contrast slavishly follow the accompanist.  When I encounter a singer who is neither a leader nor follower but does both, that is when music happens and a pleasure to work with.

There was one moment however when he began to sing the wrong verse at the end of the song.  He stopped and corrected himself, everyone knew he made a mistake.  Many musicians learn and memorize their music from rote by practicing them dozens of times over until it is “memorized.”  That method can set up many traps and things to go wrong without notice.  Rare is the musician who eats, drinks and sleeps their craft so that they are one with the song.

I once played the show “Nunsense” for a year and a half, performing six shows per week.  All the musicians in the pit had the score memorized.  One evening, Mother Superior accidentally sang the wrong lyrics and without a second thought, all the musicians looked at one another and we all seamlessly jumped to the spot where she was.  After her verse was over, knowing that she skipped an important lyric, Mother Superior walked to the edge of the stage, looked down and said to the pit “Vamp boys.”  Then she proceeded to tell the audience that she skipped a verse and said to the pit “take it back to the second verse” and we all flipped our pages, she counted us off and it was magic to have a mistake a living and breathing part of the performance.

At my concert last weekend when my bass started to sing the wrong lyric and melody, I knew exactly where he was and was prepared to jump to that spot because I was prepared for the possibilities.  When I practice music, I jump around on the pages, mixing and matching beginnings and endings, playing the piece in different keys, different styles and in general, exploring the possibilities of the work.  This helps me to learn it and to be prepared for whatever may go wrong or, in other words – own the song.  I thrive on these challenges.

My suggestion for all musicians, especially singers, when you practice with your accompanist, don’t just practice the song the way it is “supposed to go.”  Play with it.  Try different rhythms, accents and styles.  Without notice, jump to a different section so that the accompanist has to find you.  If your accompanist can’t do this, find a new accompanist.  There is nothing more frustrating than trying to make music with someone who is not a “musician.”  Music should not be something which is regurgitated from a page or set in stone.  It should be a living breathing expression of our selves and spirit.

The worse thing for a musician to do when they encounter a bump in the road is to stop.  Don’t train your mind to stop.  Don’t practice making mistakes.  Train your mind to be flexible and prepared for the possibilities.  I once worked with a great singer who during rehearsals would stop every time she made a mistake.  That practice manifested itself when she made a mistake on stage, she didn’t know how to recover and everyone in the audience knew it.  It also made rehearsals unbearable for me.

If one were to tell the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, chances are we are not reciting a memorized version of the story but, extemporizing, improvising and re-living the story pretty much in our own words.  If we make a mistake, we don’t stop, go back or apologize.  We effortlessly and almost invisibly correct it on the fly and continue with the story.  Nobody would even notice.  Music can be like that too if we are not a slave to notation, propriety or our egos.  The purpose of telling the story is to tell the story.  The purpose of music should be to tell a story, not put on a concert.  Janis Joplin once said that she doesn’t put on concerts when she sings, she makes love to the audience.

This is what making music should be about. That is the difference between an amateur, professional and artist.  Very often amateurs can also be artists and very often, professionals can be mere amateurs.
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