Guitar Performance: What to Do When Things Go Wrong

In a perfect world, we could share our music with confidence and technical perfection. We would play every note just right. We would play with effortless memory and emotional expression.

But in reality, we make mistakes. We have memory slips. We fumble and tumble.

This is all completely normal. Even profession players make mistakes. Even if we don’t realize it as listeners, things rarely go without flaw.

So what do we do when things go wrong?

Prepare for the Best, Plan for the Worst

Preparation, more than anything else, determines how we perform. The better we prepare in practice, the better we’ll play when sharing our music with others.

The quality of our attention and focus in practice will likely be the quality in performance. Distraction in practice leads to distraction in performance. How we practice is how we play.

We can prepare for performance and increase our chances of success. Beyond that, we can accept reality and get back on track as quickly as possible.

Know Your Sections

Pieces of music are made up of sections. If we can begin playing at any of the sections, we always have somewhere to jump to if need be.

If we have a memory slip or lose our place, we can hop to the next or previous section and continue playing. This is much more desirable than starting over from the beginning of the piece.

For this reason, it can be useful to memorize at least the first measure or two of each section in our pieces. Even if we play using the sheet music, this will give us time to find the section on the page with our eyes. (Marking the sections in color also helps.)

Know Your Tempos

The opening notes of any piece set the tone for the performance. If we start too fast, we’ll likely get into trouble.

We can practice setting the tempo (speed) in our “mental ear” before playing the first note. This allows us to start pieces with more confidence and avoid unnecessary technical difficulties.

If we do this in practice, we’ll be more likely to start at the correct speed in performance.

Accept that Things May Go South

And with all our preparation, we must also accept that we may make mistakes. This doesn’t make us bad people or unworthy of love. We won’t be shunned by our tribes or exiled to lonely places.

Mistakes happen. Classical guitar is hard, with many notes and high levels of complexity. So it’s not so much a matter of “if” we make a mistake, but “when”.

When a mistake happens, we must then recover.

Recovery Option #1: The Poker Face

Mistakes may sound glaring and obvious to us as performers. But listeners may not even notice them. They may be caught up in the emotion of the piece, or in the mental images the music evokes. And so they may not be aware anything has happened.

For this reason, it’s usually the best option to reveal as little as possible about the mistake. We don’t have to bring attention to every mistake with our expression or body-language.

When we keep the “poker face” and act as if all is going according to plan, listeners relax. When we act nervous or disappointed, the audience worries as well. It makes them feel nervous for us, and they no longer enjoy the performance.

We can practice keeping the straight face in our daily work. When we make mistakes in practice or in lessons, we can resist the urge to react.

Recovery Option #2: Double Down

When we make a mistake, the larger risk is a general loss of focus. Missing one note is not so terrible. But if we become distracted by the mistake and lose focus, the whole piece could fall apart.

So when a mistake happens, we can learn to “double down” on focus. We can increase our awareness. We can tune into our senses and hear more, feel more, and become more actively engaged in the moment.

This ability to keep composure and “lean into” the discomfort is sometimes called “grit”. We can nurture resilience through full engagement and a positive agenda.

Recovery Option #3: Acknowledge Defeat with a Smile

It’s important to remember that listeners want to like us. They want to enjoy themselves. They want everything to be pleasant.

If we can let them know that we’re okay, even though we obviously made a mistake, they will accept us as human. Often, these vulnerable, human moments are highlight of their experience. We love the “underdog”, and this failure on one piece gives us the opportunity to come back with the next.

Smiling and accepting defeat lightheartedly also reduces our own anxiety. We can forgive ourselves and keep a good-natured attitude. This lowers the stress and shame that may otherwise destabilize us for the rest of the performance.

Refocus and Move On

The three options above are not mutually exclusive. We may both keep a poker face and double down. In fact, we should.

But the most important note of a mistake is the one just after it. The mistake has happened, so now our job is to refocus and keep the music moving forward.

The first mistake may be a finger or memory slip. But successive mistakes are likely due to distraction, lack of focus, negative self-talk. To minimize these, we need to put our full attention on the next note. Then the one after that.

Don’t let one mistake sink the ship.

The main goal of performance is not to play note-perfect (though we do practice and prepare as well as we can to that end).

The main goal of a performance should be to share our music with as much love and generosity as we can. To this end, we can practice the physical moves. We can decide on beautiful phrasing and expression. And we can hone our focus and awareness.

When we keep this in mind, one little mistake doesn’t cancel out the show. We can continue. We have more notes and phrases to share. And we can be completely present in the moment sharing them.

As we build our practice habits, we can choose the ones that will best serve this end. These are habits of attention, listening, full engagement and cultivating quality in all we do. With these as our goals, mistakes are just feedback that let us know where to focus, or that we need to slow down. Onward and upward.

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Allen Mathews

Hi, I’m Allen Mathews. 

I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two other stellar teachers – one focused on the technical movements, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully.
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