A few years ago, while I was serving as the acting principal of the viola section of a regional orchestra, I played a concert of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony that taught me something about letting go in performance and accepting the result. The orchestra had been looking to fill the position for several years, and I had been invited to sit in numerous times, never sure if I would be hired again, or for what chair, or who else they had in mind for the job. I tried to take each performance as seriously as a job interview: I had to demonstrate that I was competent and not afraid to take charge, even though I was a relative newcomer to the ensemble, much younger than the other players in the section, and had never held a permanent principal position in a professional orchestra.
After a short and intense week of rehearsals, I arrived at the concert exhausted from a full day of teaching. Several years of learning to juggle the demands of a musical career told me what I needed to do: I tried to set aside all of my distracted thoughts and channel whatever energy I had left into helping shape an effective rendition of this epic piece. I knew that I had to balance precision and self-awareness with falling into the flow of the music – there simply wasn't room to doubt myself when the section was counting on me to be bold and in command in the moment. As the performance progressed, I relished the feeling of communion when I aligned myself with the momentum of the music and stepped into each phrase with the timing and energy required. When my mental and physical energy started to flag and I redoubled my conviction in response, I felt the shock wave of renewed enthusiasm reverberating throughout the players around me. We were all alive and playing legendary music, and life was great.
When Things Fell Apart
Things were going well until we arrived at a tricky passage in the trio of the second movement – a jaunty, metrically off-kilter horn solo with the strings trading dovetailing phrases of delicate scalar accompaniment. It had never felt really in sync during rehearsals—something about the way the parts fit together, in combination with the horn's distance from the strings, made our connection seem a bit shaky. Then, in the concert, something strange happened. I thought I'd been listening and meticulously counting rests, and brought the viola section in on cue, but a few beats later it became clear that the orchestra was not together. There were a few bars of relative chaos, probably only a couple of seconds, but what felt like eternity, and then the conductor gave a decisive cue and we all found our way again. I felt shaken, like I'd plunged into a frigid lake where I'd instead expected to find solid ice under my feet. But after making another small mistake a few moments later, I realized that allowing my mind to dwell on whatever had happened would only cause more trouble, so I tried to come back to the task at hand.
At the end of the performance, the crowd gave us a standing ovation, and the conductor looked thrilled. After I'd packed up and was making my way to the stage door, I saw him waiting in the doorway saying goodbye to the members of the orchestra. I expected him to reproach me for my mistake, but to my surprise, he thanked me instead, with a big smile, squeezing my arm. I gave an awkward smile back, too confused to know how to respond to the warmth and gratitude that came through his voice and gestures. Looking down, I mumbled “Thanks,” and shuffled through the crowd and out the door.
As I walked to the car staring at my shoes, I thought, “Should I have apologized? Cracked a joke about messing up?” Then I heard my name called, took my gaze off the asphalt ground of the parking lot, and saw my stand partner getting into her car parked beside mine. “Ugh, that thing in the third movement,” I said, raising my mittened hand to my face in embarrassment. “Oh!” she said with a look of dismay, “I am so sorry about that!” I paused, puzzled. “Wait, what? That was my fault – I brought the section in early.” “What, really? I thought it was me.” Her expression momentarily crinkled in confusion, then she brightened. “But you know, I actually think he might have done something weird that confused both of us. And that thing with the horn was never really together, so who really knows? Anyway, great job! Have a good night!” She waved an untroubled goodbye and got into her car. Bewildered, I got into mine, started it up, and prepared for the hour-long drive home.
Looking for Blame
As I drove, my mind labored overtime to assign fault for the screw-up. Could it really have been her fault? Or his? I had been so sure of our entrance, and then so sure I had messed it up. But no one had said anything to me about it. And it was true that it had happened in a section of the piece that had never felt particularly solid to begin with. Would I ever know what had happened, or whose fault it was? How much did it matter anyway? Maybe they wouldn't ever call me again...except that the conductor didn't seem upset about it. My mind bounced from one possibility to another and back again.
Barreling down I-95 toward New York, I was jolted out of my inner turmoil when a car in my lane stopped precipitously and turned on its hazard lights. In the space of a moment, when I saw the lane next to me was clear, I swerved to avoid hitting the car, and silently offered thanks for the light traffic and my quick reflexes. After the adrenaline had subsided, I wondered why the driver had done that, and if they were in trouble. So I called 911 and explained what had happened, hung up, and immediately picked up the thread of my mental drama again. But after several more minutes of rumination it dawned on me – the person in that car might be fine, or they might be having a life-threatening medical emergency. It was possible that I had not only prevented an accident by driving skillfully, but that I'd also saved his or her life by calling 911. Having no evidence either way, I had chosen to write it off as no big deal. In contrast, even though I also didn't know what had caused the screw-up at that spot in the Beethoven, I was choosing to blame myself, and to make it a very big deal. I was assuming the worst of myself and measuring the value of my contribution to the world accordingly.
Seeing the Bigger Picture
Eventually I got tired of turning the story over in my mind. When no irate or pitying messages arrived from anyone in the orchestra, I realized I’d probably never know what happened, and that they'd probably all long forgotten about it. Gradually I let go of the whole thing.
Sometime later I received a voicemail from the conductor: After several years of vacancy, they had decided to give me the principal position permanently. I called him back in shock. He said, “Oh, it was just so clear from the last concert. You were so in charge, you led the entire lower string section with such professionalism. It's wonderful to have you.” I thanked him from my heart and hung up in a state of confused joy. And I got it – whatever mistakes I had or hadn't made, in his eyes they hadn't altered his view that I was fit to lead, because his view included everything about who I was and how I conducted myself as a musician, not just my fleeting errors. If I'd been tiptoeing through the piece, I might have helped to prevent or contain the momentary mess. But in such an overly cautious state, I might have missed the chance to unleash the authentic verve and confidence that had helped bring the music to life.
Relaxing Our Grip
Many of us have had the experience of relaxing our tight grip on ourselves, letting ourselves be more real in making music or in a conversation, and then having to deal with whatever unpredictable thing happens next. This experience of release often happens for me when I stop trying to control my physical movements or the shape of the music I’m playing and just allow myself to play spontaneously and unself-consciously. And I often see my students experimenting in the same way. In letting go like this, there may sometimes be more mistakes, or sometimes fewer. But invariably, the music is more interesting and alive, because there is more of us in it, however we are right now. And it usually means that any fleeting mistakes are far outweighed by the raw energy that comes through the whole thing. That doesn't mean that mistakes won't sometimes muck things up and cause us embarrassment, but it's a risk we need to embrace with awareness, not avoid altogether. When we rein ourselves in in an effort to be correct above all else, we dial down our vitality, too.
Finding your Way to Letting Go
If you want to experiment with letting go more in the moment of performance and becoming more resilient when you fall short, here are a few ideas:
1. You can start by letting go of regrets about the way things may have gone in the past. Consider the circumstances that contributed to the situation, many of which were totally outside your control. Can you be more forgiving toward yourself in light of them?
2. Try being a little more free in your practicing, even if you worry your playing will be temporarily less accurate. Let your body move the way it wants to, and notice what happens. Do what feels fun. To take it a step further, play for a kind friend or trusted teacher and see if they notice a difference in your playing.
3. Above all, remember that your deepest wish is to make beautiful music, to enjoy it, and to share it with others while you are on this earth. That knowledge will permeate your playing and sustain you over the long term, even when you feel lost or full of doubt. One of the definitions of the word “accept” is to “believe the goodness of something”: it is easier to let go when you believe in the inherent goodness of yourself and this life.
I think back to those moments leaving the Beethoven concert—the warm exchange with the conductor, the lonely, confused walk through the parking lot, the shakeup of my assumptions about what had gone wrong. You can choose to spend your life with your head down, watching for any cracks in the asphalt so you can avoid tripping over them. Or you can learn to walk with your head held high, observing the world around you with curiosity and appreciating your role in it. You may fall more often, especially at first, and it might hurt and you'll be embarrassed. You might even take someone else down with you by accident and have to apologize. But you never know who will look past your stumbles to meet your gaze, and remind you that your fear of falling is not all they see in you.
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