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One Powerful Lesson Learned from a Performance Gone “Wrong”

There are no failures; there is only feedback for next time.

Last night I hosted a group piano performance class for my youth students. Students between the ages of eight and twelve, showed up eager to perform music that they had been preparing in their lessons and at-home practice sessions. For most of these students, the pieces they performed were still works in progress. 

Though they were a diverse gathering of students, they held in common not only a love for music and the piano but also nervous energy as they performed for each other. (Music truly is a unifying art form.)

As they practiced performing for each other, we discussed how that nervous energy impacted their performance. For some, it meant they started the song too quickly, for others they missed a few notes, and for others, they played with more hesitation than normal. 

After each student performed they asked me to perform as well. This was not something I had mentally prepared to do but I obliged them and pulled out a piece of music I'd been working on. 

I thought that I had the piece under my fingers and was ready to go. But as soon as the nerves kicked in for me, I, too, struggled a little bit with my performance, missing notes and playing with less rubato than desired. 

A similar experience repeated itself this morning for one of my adult piano students. I knew she was fully prepared for her lesson as she has a consistent daily practice habit. However, I could tell that it was not her best performance either. After she played, I asked her if my presence brought out her nerves. She said, “Yes.” 

Group piano performance class over zoom

A Performance Gone "Wrong"?

In each of these performance situations, none of the performances were "perfect" (nor could they ever be, but that's an essay for another day). Yet none of them were a failure, either. 

Here’s why: 

In each case, the performer learned something from the experience, shared their love of music with another person, and gave and received feedback from the community. All of this is to be celebrated!

From a personal growth perspective, going through this exercise enabled each musician to see where their strengths and weaknesses reside, both physically and mentally while performing their instrument.  

Revealing Physical Weaknesses

Nervous energy is natural and normal when performing a task, especially one as personal as playing an instrument, in front of others. Sometimes that energy causes the performer to feel unsteady, shaky, and insecure about their playing which can create mistakes in performances that might not be present in a home practice session. 

Or at least that’s what we think. 

In truth, the weaknesses revealed in a performance setting (ex. fingerings, notes, tempo, rhythm) were most likely still present in the practice session. It’s just that absent the spotlight of a performance of any kind (even for a teacher) it can be easy to be blind to our weaknesses.  

A performance gone “wrong” can be a gift to the musician in identifying areas that require additional methodical practice utilizing any number of practice techniques

Revealing Mental Weaknesses

Mindset during performances might be even more important than the technical aspects of playing an instrument. That nervous energy I mentioned before can often wreak havoc more on the musician’s thought life than on their technical playing. 

It’s often amazing to me the number of things I can think of while performing on stage that are completely unrelated to the music I am actively playing. It’s also incredible to see the way my mindset can easily spiral downward once I’ve made a mistake. 

Playing with a heightened awareness that others are listening paired with a desire to perform well can quickly result in negative self-judgment in the form of self-doubt and fear. I remember wanting to walk off the stage halfway through a performance because I was so frustrated with my level of playing. I had to force myself to continue.   

Many books and lectures have been given on the topic of how to keep one’s mind in the game and how to take advantage of that nervous energy while performing. It’s a common question for musicians and an important topic to discuss, debate, and attempt to solve.  But that’s not the focus of this article.  

Piano student's hands at the piano

One Powerful Lesson Learned

Instead, I want to focus on this the overall lesson learned from a performance (of any kind) going "wrong."

I believe there are no failures in life. There are no missteps or wrong turns. We are all doing the best we can with the resources and knowledge we have at the time.  

AND each experience in life gives us the opportunity to learn something new about ourselves, others, and the world. I've already written about how a musical performance gone “wrong” can highlight where a musician needs to strengthen the technical or mental aspects of their playing.  

The same is true In life where lessons can be learned from any less than “ideal” situation There are no failures. Instead, there is feedback about what worked and what didn’t work.  

With that information, we can go back to the drawing board of our lives (our relationships, our business, our time management skills, our financial well-being, etc.) and evaluate what shifts need to be made to achieve the results we desire. 

Perhaps, we’ll discover we need more self-care, physical well-being, resources, community, education, or confidence. Once we can identify those areas of needed improvement, we can take the steps necessary to reach our goals that perhaps couldn’t have been revealed without that particular setback. 

Quote graphic with white background.  Text reads: "There are no failures, only feedback for next time."

Avoid This Mistake

As much as I love introspection (I am a writer after all), I will share this insight I’ve slowly been putting into practice in my own life. 

Self-awareness turned into self-judgment is destructive.  

Feedback on our lives and self-awareness is a great thing when we use it as a tool to move ourselves forward in our careers, relationships, hobbies, or finances. However, if we assign negative meaning to those experiences and direct judgment against ourselves because of it, that feedback can become deconstructive instead of productive.  

How do I know this? Again, an example from a musical performance.

Let me set the stage for you (pun intended). A student (okay, my younger self), is on a stage performing a memorized piece of repertoire. While playing, the following internal dialogue runs. 

“This is going great! I’m hungry. I wonder what I’ll eat for lunch.”

“Stay focused, stay focused.”

“Oh no, what’s the name of that chord? I don’t remember. Does it have an F or an F#? I kept making that mistake when practicing, now I don’t know which one is correct. I’ll try the F#.”

“Nope, that wasn’t it. I made a mistake. What will the audience think of me now that I missed that note? I'm so embarrassed.”

“Yikes, there’s another mistake.”  

“Stay calm, stay calm. Take a deep breath. You know this. You’ve practiced this.” 

“I don’t like the way that note sounded, it was too loud. Oh boy, that one was too soft. Oops, that was too uneven.”

“When is this going to end? This is terrible!” 

See what happened? I allowed a mistake to turn into a negative narrative full of self-criticism and judgment instead of staying present in the moment and or using it as an opportunity to gather data to help me in future performances.

The same can happen outside of the performing arts as well. We must embrace feedback as a tool for growth not self-destruction.

Back to my piano studio and my students:  In the past 12 hours, I think we've all learned a thing or two about ourselves as people, about ourselves as musicians, and about those particular pieces of music that we're working on. 

For myself, when I practice next time, I know which passages to focus on so I can be more prepared for my next performance. 

Quote graphic with white background.  Text reads: "Self-awareness turned into self-judgement is destructive."

A Final Note: Practice Showing Up

Practicing the skill of performing is critical to the development of a musician. Though we play our instruments primarily for ourselves, for many there is also a desire to share that music with others, which requires the skill of performing. 

As with all skills, performance must be practiced. It matters not whether that performance is for a friend or family member, a teacher, a cohort (like group performance classes or cohorts), for a recording, or on a larger stage. It just needs to happen so we can learn how to manage those nerves AND how to embrace the feedback from the performance. 

Outside the musical realm, we must practice showing up in all areas of life (even in the scary ones). As we continue to put ourselves in places where we can find growth we will gain the skills of learning from our wins and undesirable outcomes. Thankfully, life lived in the fullness of our beautiful perfectly imperfect humanity will provide us with ample opportunities to receive feedback from our “performances gone wrong."


Food for Thought:

Where in your life do you need to begin to see feedback instead of failure? How would this mindset shift change your perspective on life, experiences, and yourself?


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If you are looking for additional support and encouragement in your musical journey, check out Notes to Self: A Guided Mindful Practice Journal designed to bring mindfulness and celebration to your practice sessions. 

If you are an adult musician looking for community, you are invited to join my Facebook Group, Notes to Self Musical Community: A Supportive Group for Adults. I hope to see you there!


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