Mistakes are part of everyday life. Think of all the typos you receive courtesy of smart phones. Generally, we don’t give them a second thought. Nobody chastises you for a spelling mistake in a text message. When you’re the center of attention, however, mistakes can seem like cataclysmic events. In performance, mistakes can be debilitating if you let them be. But unless it causes a real train-wreck onstage, they are far from harmful. Your ego may get bruised a little, aside from feeling like you somehow let down the audience and your band members. It’s best to follow the golden rule in baseball: have a short-term memory and move on. Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page once famously noted that, if he made a mistake onstage, he would just repeat it so that everyone thought he meant to do it.
Glenn DaGrossa, a 44-year old tenured music and art department faculty member at Arch Bishop Molloy High School in Queens, New York, and head of the after school guitar ensemble, offered the following inspired comment. “As a trained classical guitarist of 27 years and with numerous recitals and master classes under my belt, the idea of making a mistake is as real as pain itself,” he says. “We are trained to not make mistakes—to practice and study so that a mistake is merely a moment.”
He says the key is to not allow the audience to know that a mistake has occurred. “You have to have the discipline and training to overcome them in the most musically intelligent way,” he continues. “I instruct all of my students to move through mistakes and not let them restrict what they are expressing on the instrument. As human beings, mistakes are guaranteed—it is at times what makes music more human. Classical musicians, like myself, train daily to not make them, but in performance, there is only one guarantee, and that is that you will make at least one mistake. Learn from them, grow and mature as a musician from them, and realize they are there for you to strive for a higher degree of musicianship.”
Making Music asked some of our readers about what to do after a mistake has been made onstage. Some answered seriously, some answered humorously. Either way, the message was the same—move on and don’t be too hard on yourself.
You could do a ‘Van Halen’ and just smile at the crowd, shrug your shoulders, and say ‘Oops!’ then continue rocking out.
—Scott Bennett (guitar). New York, New York
Give the guitar player a dirty look so that the whole audience thinks it was him.
—Matt DeSilva (bass). Brooklyn, New York
If it’s noticeable, I just smile, get over it, rock on, and let it be the ‘human’ moment it’s supposed to be, which is charming if your ego is intact. The perspective to keep is that you are only you. And it is just music, which is all about the audience having fun, not about being stuck on your ego.
—Chuck Schiele (guitar). Ocean Beach, California
“Stop playing! Immediately go to your amp and pretend to adjust some dials and look behind the amp like something went wrong! Turn around and find your place in the song and continue!”
—Mark Denson (bass). Van Etten, New York
As long as you start and finish together, most people won’t notice. Just play through it and don’t stop.
—Lou Graziano (drums/vocals). Blakeslee, Pennsylvania
When we are on the other side of the stage, seeing mistakes is actually awesome—it makes it all the more real, all the more human, and ‘mistakes’ can lead to great things happening that would not otherwise have the opportunity to happen, off stage or on.
—Lesley Graydon (music lover). Vancouver, British Columbia