It’s interesting that the fear of messing up a live stage performance is a lot like the fear of heights, in that it is the fear itself which causes the unwanted thing to happen.
The good news is that, unlike falling off a cliff, a major performance error is not going to physically hurt. That much at least is worth bearing in mind – as is the importance of preventing mistakes by being extremely well prepared. Anything that increases your self confidence will lessen the likelihood of screwing up.
But what if you do find yourself coming to a grinding halt in the middle of a public performance? What then? How can we deal with a major musical mishap?
No amount of preparation will guarantee that you won’t get onstage and draw a mental blank somewhere in the song. It happens to me sometimes. There was one such occasion in Ottawa at the Bytown Ukulele Group (BUG) this spring when I played the harmonica introduction to my song A Nice Cup of Tea. I was so into the harmonica playing that when I started to sing I realized I’d the forgotten the first line. All I could do was stop and grope the mental air around me for lyrics which refused to be grasped. My eyes turned toward the case containing my song sheets in the corner of the room. I wondered if I needed to pull out my folder and dig out the lyrics. But happily I was saved by someone who knew the song and sang the first line for me. What a relief! With that I was off and running – and the song continued under its own momentum amid laughter and applause and with no further mishaps.
Getting through such a situation in a spirit of fun is important. As entertainers we want the audience to experience a great time and if we show that we’re having a good time the audience will be right there with us. But the opposite is just as true. For if our words, face and body language show that we are mortified with embarrassment every empathetic human in the room will feel our pain. And that’s not good.
Let’s avoid that by giving ourselves some tools for if the worst should happen.
Practice Screwing Up
My first suggestion would be to practice screwing up. Practice your song or set of songs from beginning to end. Make it as real in your mind as possible-imagine the audience and speak your introductory words. While playing you’ll probably make some little errors such as forgotten words or wrong chords. These pass by quickly and are not enough to trip up the whole song. But if you have a catastrophic error at home then that will be most useful to you because it gives you a chance to plan your reaction and figure out what to say should the same thing happen on the big day.
As I said, the most important thing is to look relaxed and happy no matter what happens. Exactly what you say is not necessarily all that important. When it has happened to me I’ve sometimes had so much fun with the error that people thought the mistake was deliberately included as part of the show.
I was talking about this topic with David Mayerovitch, a songwriter whose work I enjoy immensely (he used to write for the comedy duo Wayne and Shuster no less, and updated W.S. Gilbert’s lyrics for The Gondoliers at the Stratford Festival) He regularly performs at BUG meetings in Ottawa. He told me that when he flubs a song he smiles and says, “Take two!” and then continues.
A line like that is simple, quick and funny and keeps all awkwardness at bay. Better still is to come up with your own way to work through such moments. Make light of the situation in a way that suits your own personality. David also said that if he were a teacher he’d advise players of all skill levels to, “Never apologize! When performers cover themselves in humiliating apologies it only makes the embarrassment worse.” He continued, “Seeing a performer dry up mid-song is always an agonizing experience for the audience, probably more so than for the player because the audience can do nothing about it.”
It’s worth remembering that even if you know the number well it can be useful to take a quick glance at the first lines of verses, choruses and bridges before you go off to the gig. I’d also suggest keeping your lyric/chord sheet close at hand.
And this goes ESPECIALLY for songs you’ve written yourself. David and I both know that our own songs are harder to remember than cover songs. This is because we’ve heard cover songs for years whereas our originals are only heard when we sing them. As well as original songs being much newer they often trip us up further because our heads still contain earlier versions of the same song.
David was once impressed to see a Del Rey performance at the Montreal Ukulele Festival. Del is a virtuoso performer and, he recalls, “When she happened to dry up mid-song she made a joke out of it and blazed right along. In the end she got more applause than if the mistake had not happened.”
That’s the way to do it folks.
Everyone makes mistakes. It’s how we deal with them that matters.
If you have your own song-saving technique please drop me an email I would love to see how you deal with Songstoppers.
And here are some of David’s songs for you to check out: