Robert Estrin - piano expert

How Mistakes in Performance are Like Driving on Ice

Very useful tips for all pianists

In this video, Robert gives you the right mindset to deal with mistakes in your performance, no matter what instrument you play.

Released on July 15, 2020

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DISCLAIMER: The views and the opinions expressed in this video are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Virtual Sheet Music and its employees.

Video Transcription

Welcome to I'm Robert Estrin with a really interesting subject today, how mistakes in performance are like driving on ice. I'll never forget when I was a kid, I was quite young because I started piano when I was very young, studied with my father. And while he taught piano at Hofstra University, he also had a huge teaching studio attached to the back of our house. We had a terrace on top of it. We had a lot of fun there. That's a subject for another video. But what I want to tell you about is these recitals he had there. Monthly, he would feature different students. Some of his students were incredible concert pianists who went on to illustrious careers.

Well, in June, he would have his student recitals for everybody else who were not up to the level of paying a whole recital. And so that's where I first got my feet wet in performing. And I remember how terrifying it was because you practice and practice. You get used to playing your pieces. Then you get in front of people, and it's like, gung. Everything feels totally different, and something goes wrong, and your hands are sweating and everything seems surrealistic, exaggerated, almost like being in some kind of dream state, but it can be like a nightmare when something goes wrong.

So how do you deal with such a thing? And what am I talking about, mistakes being like driving on ice? Well, it's a very good analogy. Before I tell about this analogy, let me tell you something I've mentioned before about mistakes in performance and how to deal with it appropriately. And the way I described it sometimes is, if you just keep going, most people aren't really going to notice. Maybe if they are intimately familiar with the score they might, but most people aren't. And even if they are, if you keep the music going, that's key because it keeps the performance enjoyable.

So that is the important thing. Just like going to a film. If you went to a film and suddenly there was like a splice and you jump back or forward, even a fraction of a second, it would be jarring. And that's what happens if you lose your rhythm and your continuity in performance. So how is this like driving on ice? I'm glad you asked the question.

The reason is that if you're ever driving a car on ice, as soon as it happens, it's an unnerving feeling, because you're turning the wheel and nothing happens. Press the brake, nothing happens. And so what do you do? Do you just go wild trying to keep doing things? Do you put it in reverse? No, you don't put it in reverse. You don't start over-steering or hitting the brake like crazy. Instead, you realize that you're just going in this direction and you're going to keep going in that direction like it or not. And then eventually you're going to hit dry ground and you're going to gain control of your car.

It's exactly the same thing in musical performance. Something goes wrong. Of course, it's horrifying, just like driving a car. Even though your life isn't in danger, you don't feel that way. You feel like your life is flashing before your eyes. You got a whole audience looking at you and something that went perfectly all the time, suddenly you find yourself in this horrendous situation. The best thing you can do is keep your fingers moving. Keep any part of the score you can remember, even if it's a mishmash of notes, until your fingers and your ears can kind of piece together where you are, so you keep moving forward.

That's the secret for getting through your mistakes in performance. You never stop and correct it. And this is the problem because in practice, of course, you always stop and correct mistakes because that's what practicing is about. Performance is a completely different situation. I've talked about the necessity of practicing performance. You have to practice performing or else when it finally happens, you're not ready for it. So you have to first play for maybe just for... put your phone up and press record and maybe see if you can generate some excitement that way. Then play for family members, trusted friends, then maybe groups of people, until finally you're ready to do a performance. And then any time in there, even if you're with a group of friends and something goes wrong, don't stop it and go, "Oh, I can play this perfectly. Let me start it over."

No. Make it a performance. This is an ideal opportunity to iron out what you'll do in an actual performance when something inevitably goes wrong. And I got news for you. You might think that concert pianists, oh, they know the music so well, nothing ever goes wrong. That's not true. There are always catastrophes. I don't care how much you practice and how great you are, things will happen, whether it's memory or something, where the piano doesn't feel quite right. Something doesn't come out right in a trail or a turn and you find yourself off put, in the wrong place, not feeling comfortable.

So remember, just like driving on ice, don't freak out. Just keep going until you get some traction in your music, just like in the car and you're going to be just fine. Try it the next time you perform. I'm very interested in any of you who have had this kind of experience. And for those of you who haven't done this before, and you try it, let me know how it works for you. I'm really interested. Again, I'm Robert Estrin here at, your online piano resource. See you next time.
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Comments, Questions, Requests:

seahawk41 * VSM MEMBER * on July 16, 2020 @5:44 pm PST
I am a cellist, not a pianist, but I like video, because I have the experience often. I describe it as riding a bike that is going out of control, say down a long hill! This is a good way to think deal with it.
Robert Estrin on July 17, 2020 @2:53 pm PST
Yes, this feeling of loss of control can be true performing on any instrument.
Steve Borcich * VSM MEMBER * on July 15, 2020 @1:49 pm PST
Perhaps you've heard this joke, Robert. What is the difference between a professional musician and an amateur musician? When a professional musician makes a mistake they don't show it on their face! One of my teachers once said "you can't erase mistakes".
Robert Estrin on July 16, 2020 @12:26 pm PST
There is great truth to this!
Elo * VSM MEMBER * on July 15, 2020 @4:34 am PST
As a recorder player I've come face to face with performance anxiety. Someone once told me "you have to get your nervous system accustomed to the shock". Sounds about right. Also, in the JJ Quantz 1752 book "On Playing the Flute" he mentions reaching up and grabbing at your (powdered) wig to get some powder on your fingers to combat the sweaty/sticky finger problem.
Robert Estrin on July 15, 2020 @2:35 pm PST
We must all face challenges in what we do every day. Performing music is no exception. It is necessary to go through the motions of new experiences in order to gain comfort whether it's talking with strangers at a party or performing for a hall full of people.
Seun Akin-Ajayi on July 15, 2020 @3:58 am PST
I used to be a victim of this especially when the camera is on. But I got over it and make sure I play to the end no matter what.
Thanks so very much Robert for your insights.
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