If you make a mistake, carry on

I played in a concert on Saturday afternoon, accompanying the pupils of a relative of mine. The experience was enlightening. It raised all sort of questions about our notion of a faultless performance and what effect striving for one has on our confidence as individuals.

Abigail had organised the concert. We set out the chairs in the room at the Methodist Church in Sevenoaks usually occupied by the Women’s Fellowship. Rehearsals were scheduled at half-hourly intervals starting at 9.15am. Kelly was first, followed by Gemma, Sue and India. A performance of Pachebel’s Canon was programmed to end the concert with Dominic on bass. Kelly sat it out and watched from the front row.

I played in two pieces: Patrick’s Reel (for Kelly’s performance) and Konasis for violinist India.

Two things were evident from rehearsals. First, that four young people willingly gave of their time to perform in a modest concert attended by only a handful of people in a small room at the back of a church on a Saturday morning. They had clearly worked hard in preparation too. Another challenge to the often touted line that kids aren’t interested in classical music.

Second, how good they all were. Kelly, played three short solo pieces (in preparation for an exam he’s taking in a few weeks time) and kept time perfectly, respecting the rests, marking the beats silently like a pro. Kelly is seven years old.

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Gemma smiled, laughed and giggled when she wasn’t playing, exuding a easy charm. She played duets she played with her teacher, Abigail. When she stumbled over a phrase, Abigail would take her through the bit she fluffed one more time, after which she’d practice it on her own. She quickly corrected the fault, demonstrating to those of us in rehearsals that yes, she had got it this time. Gemma must have been thirteen or fourteen. Her focus was compelling. Such a shame, it seemed to me, she had chosen to not carry on learning.

India, a teenager with a sweet smile and a confident bowing techique presented a Greek folk tune in 7/8 time. I’ve never been asked to sight-read anything in 7/8 and although it was only a piece for a Grade 5 violin exam, I did struggle in places. “You are getting behind the beat,” said Abigail smiling politely at me during the rehearsal. “That’s because I’m putting in an extra note in each bar,” I replied as though I was amazed she didn’t already realise. It just sounded better with eight quavers in the bar, not seven.

Konasis. 7/8 time. Tricky
Konasis. 7/8 time. Tricky

It was this piece which caused me the most unexpected anxiety. I hadn’t anticipated anything too demanding of my accompanying duties. I thought I would breeze through the day. India’s piece, however, caused some consternation. I took myself off to a nearby kitchen and rehearsed the entire thing using an imaginary keyboard on the worktop. After that, I wandered up and down Sevenoaks high street counting “1,2,3 – 1,2 – 1,2” over and over again until I got the irregular rhythm into my head.

I had noticed anxiety on the faces of others in the group during the rehearsals in the morning. I felt for them. Everyone wanted everything to be perfect or faultless. “What will you do if you make a mistake?” asked Abigail when Kelly stumbled over a missed note. “Just carry on. Don’t let it distract you.” Kelly absorbed the advice willingly and (come the concert) turned in a faultless performance. How would I fare?

My preparation for the Konasis (the 7/8 piece) paid off. We started together and we did, defiantly, finish together too. There were some difficult moments when I turned the page, and a very real possibility that the additional photocopied page might fall off the piano stand, but I got there in the end. And the relief I experienced was overwhelming.

Nearly everyone had experienced nerves about the experience to a greater or lesser extent. All of us had dealt with it. But, the experience got me thinking about where our desire for a “perfect performance” really comes from? Why is it so very important when we know what our own limitations are? Why do we fear the audience’s reaction so much (as I did) when the reality is that we as performers know the music far better than the audience does? What is it that we really think the audience will do at the end of a performance that hasn’t gone quite so well as we’d hoped it might do?

It seems to me that too that gaining experience of performing – even to a small group of people – is incredibly important for a young person’s development. Critical acclaim isn’t important here, so much as ensuring some kind of experience of having performed something in its entirety – to go from the beginning to the end without stopping is no mean feat. To do that with another person in tow (who’s only just been introduced to the music you’re playing) is an even greater achievement. And I wonder whether we all overlook that kind of achievement too.

It makes me think about what the positive long-term effects are of that kind of experience on us as individuals? How does having that kind of experience as a youngster set us up for adult life? How can we draw upon the memory of that experience when we’re older?

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