Ideally, after all the hours of practicing, you get on stage for a performance and, at least for a few moments, you get to live in the space between your instrument, your fingers and your ears. But we don’t always get to have perfect semi-out-of-body experiences. And in fact, quite often, “technical difficulties” tear you away from the music (just ask Janet Jackson). As long as no one gets hurt (more on this below), these experiences can even be good, when we are forced to think on our feet and find a solution quickly. In a time of highly polished and edited recordings and musical perfectionism, a small mishap can even be a humanizing experience. What should you do when something goes wrong? Here are a couple tips I can share on how to respond to the unexpected on stage.
1. Think quickly.
At the Latvia Music Award Ceremony in Riga, my E string snapped moments before the end of Wieniawski’s Polonaise Brilliante – in fact, it snapped right as I was approaching the fermata. The concert was being filmed live on national TV, and it would have been pointless by then to call “time out” and fix my poor violin. Time already slows down when we play music, and fear and adrenaline bring it almost to a halt. In a number of seconds that felt like hours, I realized I had to do something immediately. I would even say that I didn’t realize anything – my legs simply took me elsewhere before I could say what I was doing. I turned to the concert master, Sandis Šteinbergs, and said, “Sandis! Please help me!” He graciously lent me his violin and saved the day: I played to the end, as you can see above. In the middle of a performance everyone is concentrated on the goal of getting through the piece to the best of their ability, so that when a mishap does occur the other musicians also notice it immediately and will probably try to help if they can.
2. Stay calm and wait for an appropriate moment to react.
At a recent performance in Tel Aviv, I watched with horror as my music stand began to slide down in slow motion. By the time it stopped it was much farther down and I was craning my neck toward the floor. Thankfully I was wearing contact lenses that day – if I had been wearing glasses they would have probably fallen off. When we finished the movement, I pulled the stand up only to see it start to inch slowly down again. The audience started to laugh, and I did too. This broke the tension, I smiled, got up and took the music stand backstage to replace it. In most of the situations I have experienced or heard about from colleagues, you can either make do with the slightly compromised situation or calmly interrupt the performance between movements or pieces and fix the problem.
3. When it isn’t a musical issue, trust other people to know what to do.
An elderly concert attendee fell unconscious when I was performing in Poland. At first I only noticed people going up and down the isles – something to which I try not to pay attention while I am playing. But then two paramedics came in with a stretcher and placed a woman on it. She had a heart condition and was not responding. Although I didn’t know what was going on, at this point I was naturally quite concerned that something awful might have happened, but continued playing as it seemed to be under control. I was relieved to find out later that she came to shortly after they took her out and that she even insisted on returning for the second half of the concert.
I’m conflicted, however. Musicians literally have center stage and can direct the audience’s attention to someone who may need help. If we are attentive to the audience as musicians, surely we also must be prepared to recognize an event that is larger than the music itself, and then to use our position to help. No matter what the situation, however, it is best to remain calm, look for an opportunity to intervene – whether in a technical issue or a more serious emergency – and count on your training and disciplined practice to deliver you once the music can begin again.