Failure is not an option. It could be the tag line from any Hollywood movie about a sports star/secret military raid/politician from the last 40 years. Maybe if you’re behind enemy lines failure really isn't an option but in musical performance, it’s more of a state of mind.
There have been many times when I’ve been deeply unhappy with my performance as I trudge offstage and yet colleagues and audience members have congratulated me. Conversely I also remember coming off stage delighted with the way the flute section had played a very difficult piece in a high profile concert; we all felt that it couldn't have gone any better, and yet a reviewer simply said that it ‘was not a great evening for the flute section’…
So which one was the failure?
Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Fail again. Fail Better.
When I was studying at the Guildhall School of music last century, someone gave me a postcard with these words on after I had managed to get lost in a performance and recapitulated in the wrong key…Nowadays they’d probably just tag me in a meme involving a miniature dog du jour stuck up to its neck in horse manure, or an emoji. The thing is, I didn't understand the postcard, why would I want to fail? I didn’t want to fail and I certainly didn't want fail again, better or worse, richer or poorer…sickness and health is another story. It didn't make any sense and rather than ask someone what it meant I recycled it. I wanted to be a winner, I didn't want to speak loser. It’s a shame that I didn't ask someone like…my flute teacher for instance, the person I saw most regularly and probably failed in front of more than anyone else. It’s more that a shame, it’s ironic as my teacher at that time was Edward Beckett who is the grandson of Samuel Beckett, the author of the quote. Having said that, if I had asked him about it, I’d have probably discovered that although this little chunk of prose is ‘inspiring,’ in context it is much darker. Beckett wasn’t especially well known for his side splitting banana slipping gags or indeed his cheerful outlook. The full piece is more about the inevitable journey to the grave rather than a cute soundbite to camera explaining away your third unsuccessful appearance on Dragon’s Den.
It’s almost exactly 25 years since I left the Guildhall and I’ve been revisiting my shortcomings on a daily basis. I have learned one thing beyond all doubt. For a musician, failure is not an option, it’s inevitable. I would actually say that it’s necessary. It’s not fun, failing, and it certainly shouldn't be your goal, but any performer who tells you that they've never made a mistake on stage is either a liar, has a very short term memory or isn't putting in enough effort.
Of course, as a professional musician where people pay money to come and hear me, it’s part of my job to not make mistakes in a concert, but they do happen. Sometimes they are spectacular, obvious and appear on YouTube forever. You know the kind of thing, the red faced chorister who adds the extra Hallelujah when everyone else has stopped. The trumpet player who splits the last, loud high note at the end of a Mahler symphony or the flute player who…that’s for another blog. Some are less obvious except to those in the know and have only a minor impact on the performance, but haunt players forever. My favourite story is of the percussionist flown out to Japan (probably) especially to play in a performance of Bruckner 7 which involves one cymbal crash. One. You can guess what happened. Whether through jet lag, boredom or the desire to have a really great anecdote to tell in his quite possibly early retirement, he missed it. That’s a long way to go to not make a sound, but didn’t ruin the performance unless he tried to sneak one in later on in the quiet bit.
One of the reasons that people come to watch live music is because of the excitement, the drama, the edge of seat thrill as 100 people race to the abyss, hopefully at the same speed. You never hear an exact replica of a recording because, well, you can listen to a recording, but I don't personally want to hear a group of musicians playing to not make mistakes, playing it safe. I want to hear risk. Despite what you may have heard, you don't get awards for playing all the right notes in the right order. I go to a concert to be moved, transported, taken out of myself for a while and many many more reasons. For that to happen, I need all of the performers on stage to give their all, to go for it and not spare the horses. We played the Prelude a l’apres midi d’un Faun a couple of days ago. There are a million ways to play it, but I try and play the first note as if it comes from nowhere. It’s a risk, but when it works, the music comes from nowhere. But because it’s a risk, it can go wrong. It has gone wrong in the past, but I’d rather deal with one failure than just play it safe all the time.
That performance was from a series of interesting concerts programmed by our Principal Guest conductor, Francois Xavier Roth which show Debussy and his development. There is another one to come in the series in which we play one of his best known pieces, La Mer, but yesterday we had the prelude, the door to modernism or impressionism depending on which radio station you listen to. What was fascinating though was the first concert where we heard the influences on the young Debussy, pieces which don’t get played as often as they used to. Massenet’s Le Cid and Lalo’s Cello concerto aren’t heard much these days, but it was great to see so many audience members smiling instead of contemplating their demise after yet more soul searching Mahler. Snuggled in the middle of the programme was the UK premiere of Debussy’s Premiere Suite d’orchestra, a piece he wrote as a student which was lost until a few years ago when it turned up in a library in New York. What a huge fine that must have been. What is interesting about the piece is that it’s…well, it’s OK. It’s not… great and I don’t think that we are suddenly going to start hearing it every season, but that’s not really the point. When you hear the piece, it sounds like a nice piece of French music from the period that doesn't sound so different from the Lalo or Massenet. But…quite unexpectedly, from behind a musical curtain Debussy suddenly pops his head out like he’s playing musical hide and seek. And there it is, it’s Debussy, that sound, that orchestration, the lusciousness in the string melody, the delicately orchestrated wind chords and swirling harp that…and just like that it disappears. Ironically the movement that sounds most like the Debussy we recognise today is the only part where the original orchestration is still lost and so has been orchestrated by composer Philippe Manoury from the piano reduction. Manoury of course had the benefit of studying Debussy’s later works and applying those principals of orchestration to the earlier piece. Young Claude had no idea as he couldn't get hold of the scores that he hadn't written yet.
Is it a bad piece? No of course not. Is it a good piece? Well, it’s not for me to say, but it’s not the Debussy of La Mer, or Prelude or Pelleas. He was experimenting, trying things out, taking risks…failing at being Debussy. Imagine if he hadn't and had just settled for being an average, respectable composer, a footnote in musical history. Imagine if he hadn’t tried out that weird opening of l’apres midi. Imagine if didn’t write a piece about kids playing with a tennis ball which changes key and tempo and time signature all the time and then orchestrate it in a new way? What would have happened if he hadn’t tried out things which didn’t work out as planned? What would have happened if he hadn’t failed, failed again and failed better? My dry cleaning bill would have been smaller, but the musical world would have been a poorer place.
So I get irritated when I hear music students being told
‘Professionals don’t make mistakes…’
‘It takes five years to build a reputation and one bad performance to ruin it…’
‘If you’ve made a mistake in a gig and someone influential heard it, they’ll never book you…’
‘If you don’t do it like I do, you’ll never get anywhere’
Etc, etc, etc
Students. Listen. Make as many mistakes as you need, that’s how you learn. If someone laughs at you when you fail, shrug it off. So what, nobody died. Try not to do it again, but I warn you that you will. Take risks, musically speaking and get used to failing. If you can cope with it, with that feeling, then you’ll be fine. If you expect perfection all the time, you’ll never cope with being a performer, you will be disappointed. The trouble is that everyone expects perfection these days. Perfection is always just out of reach, but in the days of TV talent shows, perfection is expected, anything less isn't good enough. I’ve seen kids stop playing or singing because they think they aren't good enough. That’s so sad. Maybe they aren't going to be the next superstar violinist or top selling pop artist, but the joy that music can bring at every level is something that we all need right now. Whether you are playing in the LSO or in your local amateur orchestra, the best performances all share the same basic qualities, joy, passion, excitement… other qualities are available. Who doesn't need more of that in their life?! I’ve skipped home from professional concerts which have stayed with me for years, but I’ve also experienced countless school events where aside from my own kids, I’ve been thrilled and moved by children who just get up and play for the joy it brings them and the audience. My daughter was told a while ago in class that the song that she’d written and played on guitar and sang was ok, but sounded like Adele. It wasn’t meant as a compliment as she was then told she should try and be more original. She’s 13. Some of the class even booed because that’s what happens on TV isn’t it? Who the hell is original at 13? I doubt Adele was. Debussy wasn’t, Lennon and McCartney weren’t. I prefer to think how amazing it is that a 13 year old can write something that sounds like one of the most successful artists of our time. I couldn't do that when I was her age and here I am just playing other peoples’ dots thirty odd years later. She can already write her own, how wonderful! Something to be celebrated not scorned. The trouble is, it put her off and she didn’t want to do it again, but with much persuasion, she played another one of her songs in a music assessment a week later. This time she came home buoyant. She tried, failed, tried again and skipped the next bit. Success with a difficult lesson learned.
So that Beckett quote out of context seems helpful, but it isn't really. Leave it to the self appointed self help gurus. It’s not failing, it’s learning and the moment we stop doing that as musicians, then all is lost. Debussy learned how to be Debussy through trial and error, many other composers burned early works or banned them so that we would never see their failures, just the final finished article. You don’t usually get to see orchestras rehearsing because that’s where we try to make our mistakes before you walk in the room. So, Samuel, I’m going to rescue you from your misquoted fridge magnet hellhole. I’m going to start using a different quote. How about some Nietzsche from Twilight of the Idols which seems like an appropriate title.
Was mich nicht umbringt macht mich stärker
Or as real life pop idol Kelly Clarkson put it, with respect Freidrich, a little more catchily
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger
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