Saturday, February 13, 2010


We all make mistakes. And anyone who is constantly participating in a live performance is going to eventually make a mistake. No matter how many hours you practice, how many times you repeat something, inevitably, something will go wrong eventually.

And I HATE that.

Some people just shrug and move on, knowing full well that mistakes are a natural and normal part of live theater. I unfortunately am not one of those people. In fact, quite the contrary - I am one of those people who lies in bed at night after making a mistake in a performance and yells "MISTAAAAAAAAAKE!!! MISTAAAAAAAAKE!!! MISTAAAAAAAAAKE!!! repeatedly in my own head. Kind of like this:

(By the way, the tenor in that clip from the TV show "Scrubs" is named Bruce Sledge, and he happens to be the person with whom I performed my very first love scene when I was 19 years old, at a summer program in California called Music Academy of the West. I was a soprano then, and I sang Nanetta to his Fenton, and we had to roll around on the ground and make out. To make things even more difficult, my parents, not knowing what type of scene we would be performing, were sitting in the third row video-taping the whole thing. MISTAAAAAAAAAAKE!!!)

Anyway, last night's fourth performance of Agrippina was generally quite a good one. The energy was high, people were singing beautifully, all systems were go. When we got to my last aria, the big crazy bravura coloratura one, I was happy with how it was going. I was feeling good and psychopathic and singing all my notes fast and furiously, and then went onto the "B" section which is slow and legato, in contrast to the fiendish fioratura of the "A" section. I am lying on the ground for this section, in between the my mother's legs (don't ask) and I was feeling really in the moment, and playing with dynamics and colors. I was feeling good, like all the elements were coming together. Then in the last couple of phrases, something I cannot explain happened, and for some reason I held one of my notes a beat longer than I was supposed to. So, for the next measure I was one beat behind the orchestra, until I got my bearings, corrected myself, and got back on track for the final phrase. It was so weird - that particular thing had never ever happened before - in all the performances I did of this role two years ago, and in all the two months I've been doing it this time, I have never once held that note an extra beat. I have no idea what synapses didn't fire in brain last night that caused me do to that, and I still don't know now. But it was about 4 seconds of pure agony for me, where I realized I was wrong, needed to keep going while simultaneously correcting myself, and it felt like it lasted for about 4 hours.

The funny thing is, the only people who had any idea that something was wrong were me, the conductor, and the soprano playing my mother, since she has heard me sing this aria a million times while lying between her legs. Even the other singers in the show, who were standing in the wings listening, couldn't tell that anything was off. It was ONE measure in a three and a half hour opera. But I tell you, I was so MAD at myself for this error! How could I have gotten it right in all the rehearsals and made this stupid, useless mistake in a performance? WHY?????? MISTAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAKE??????????????

But you know what? The true test of a professional in any field is not the perfection they achieve, but how they recover from their mistakes. Because perfection is absolutely impossible and besides that, it's boring. The reason that human beings like to experience live theater is because of the possibilities that lie within the unexpected. And sometimes that even means mistakes. So we have to accept our mistakes, forgive ourselves, and make the next moment even more interesting than the last. So my job is to silence that voice in my head that screams, "MISTAAAAAAAAAAAAAKE" and keep going, so that in the end, people don't remember mistakes, they just remember that the evening was very interesting.

Mistake? What mistake? I was just seeing if you were awake.


Avocational Singer said...

I thought that clip you posted was so funny and so appropriate to your post!

When a person can make a mistake in front of the whole world and be okay about it -- or even let someone see them be "wrong" about something, for that matter, and be okay about it -- then they have really become free.

Sibyl said...

Superb post (especially love the doubly applicable, hilarious clip)! I think I will have my agonisingly perfectionist teenage daughter read this.

pat said...

I read this somewhere a long time ago and it has always stuck with me and always proved to be true:
The only true learning that we ever experience is from our own mistakes. We learn nothing from perfection because perfection is who we are, only from our mistakes do we gain self knowledge. Mistakes allow us to see our own perfection and the perfection of others. Without mistakes, we would have no way to see how absolutely perfect we are, just the way we are.

sestissimo said...

First of all, I want to say that the best thing about this post so far has been the lovely comments. Thank you for those.

Second, I have to point out that upon reviewing this entry several hours after posting it, I noticed that I had left the T out of the word Mistake in the title of the post. Talk about irony!!! I almost left it like that in an attempt to "own" my own mistakes, but I couldn't stand it, and had to fix it. What can I say? I'm a work in progress.

Leah Partridge said...

Love this post! Perfectionism is the death of art and even though we may know this we tend to never be able to silence Bruce screaming MISTAKE!!!!! You are so right, though...recovery is the the olympics and see the skaters fall, get right back up and still get a medal. Brava!

C'est Moi said...

Jenny, you are so hard on yourself. Even the quakers who quilt meticulously, purposely make an tiny x on a finished quilt because only God makes a perfect thing. And they are a step down. Mistakes are humanizing and wonderful. Relax and acknowledge the moment. People who know it was a mistake are behind you and forgiving...warts and all make it real.

Anonymous said...

I saw and heard you that friday and didn´t notice a mistake. you were great (I had many bravos at the end and surely not because of a little mistake nobody noticed. I really had a great evening!
Thanks a lot!

Enrique said...

I was in that performance! (February 12) and I did'nt notice your "mistake". I remember a very beautiful interpretation of this aria (Come Nube). I allready made a comment of your post "It's done?" with my opinion of the opera performance. The magic of the live performances is that no one is the same, allways is something different. I have photographs and a video of the curtanin call of this wonderful performance that I gladly share with you and your blog. Contact with me if you want to send them. Enrique