How to respond when things go terribly wrong on stage

The moment is usually brief, but it feels like it lasts forever.

It is the moment in a performance where something goes very, very wrong. Far from a missed note, or a mistaken melody, it usually involves a musical issue that is painfully obvious and regrettable. The musicians are lost, the leader or soloist is confused, and the audience can sense or even see that there is a problem.

At that moment, some musicians let fear and frustration overwhelm their musical ability. Instead of processing how to fix the issue, they panic.

What do you do when panic threatens to destroy your performance?

First, maintain your poise. It’s not the audience’s fault that a problem arose, so the first thing musicians must do is maintain professionalism. Don’t accentuate the problem by showing frustration, blaming others, or generally drawing more attention to the issue. Taking a mishap in stride can soften the effect of a musical breakdown on stage.

Secondly, make the simple adjustment. Many times a musical issue can be solved with an easy fix, i.e. going back to the beginning of a song, but often musicians overreact in the moment of a musical mistake, and that can make things worse. Think to yourself, “What’s the simplest way to fix this?” Then act accordingly.

Lastly, move as a unit. When performing with a group, communication is the key to solving musical problems with the least amount of confusion. If there is a leader, look to them for guidance and then transmit that information to the rest of the ensemble quickly. Even if an error is one person’s fault, fixing it is the entire group’s responsibility, and the situation can be resolved if the ensemble remains unified.

Your response in the midst of a musical mistake may prove that you are the right musician for the moment.

Professionals aren’t perfect, but neither do they panic.

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