When Bad Performances Happen

A few days ago as I was quickly scanning the Twitterverse for news and information, I paused on these tweets from Northern California-based composer Garrett Shatzer:

After quickly weighing in with my $0.02…

…this appeared from Brooklyn-based composer Daniel Felsenfeld…..

…who elaborated on his perspective in a later email….

The whole idea that we ought to be grateful and penitent even in the presence of a poor performance—and by this I do not mean a player who is not exactly flawless but rather an unprepared and uncaring performance—is something with which we all must deal. For one, it is a little—LITTLE—bit true because we can probably trace some professional good things to some less-than-stellar performances, so it behooves us to suffer a little. On the other hand, how often do we get misrepresented?

…and here we are.

Bad performances happen.
This is, quite simply, a reality of being a composer. Performances are not always what we would like them to be, or what we expect them to be. This can range from, “That wasn’t quite what I was hoping for,” to “I think I’ll just crawl under this seat right now and stay there. Forever.” To emphasize Danny’s point above, we are not talking about the performance that contains a few blemishes, but rather to the train wreck situation that unfortunately, most of us have experienced at one time or another. Although I think that it is possible to minimize the potential for these situations—for instance, by being selective about what musicians play what music—I don’t believe that they can be completely avoided. We have all been caught by surprise by a performance we thought was going to go well and then didn’t.

Will a poor performance damage a composer’s career/reputation/future projects?
There is no clear answer to this question, but in my experience, a bad performance is more likely to impact the musician(s) than the composer. An experienced listener (and sometimes even those with less experience) can often distinguish between a problem with the performance vs. an issue with the music itself, even in the case of a premiere. Perhaps a long run of consistently poor performances of a piece would have a real effect, but one or two? That’s just life.

If a performance is especially problematic, one thing a composer can do to minimize any potential negative impact is to simply be silent. No one who wasn’t in attendance needs to know a thing about it beyond the fact that it happened. It can safely be included on a list of performances, on a resume or CV, on a website, etc. If it was documented in audio or video, you are under no obligation (unless there was a very specific and unusual contract agreement regarding the performance) to share that with the world. And chances are if the performance was that terrible, the performer or ensemble isn’t going to put it out there either.

As far as handling the situation in the moment—assuming the composer is present, that is—I am highly pro-diplomacy. Take a bow, shake hands, greet the audience, enjoy a glass of wine at the reception. If you feel comfortable telling the musicians you were unhappy with how things played out, don’t do it then and there. Save that for later, maybe even several days after the performance. And keep in mind that you may not have a clear picture of the situation—something could have happened to affect the performance, such as a personal emergency, a musician feeling ill, a practice space snafu. Take time to suss that out and discuss with the musicians what happened before airing your grievances. It’s also possible that something was amiss within the music, or the parts, some aspect of the gear or tech setup, who knows. Discuss what might resolve the issue in future performances—the fix could be as simple as allowing for more rehearsal time. We are all musicians in this together, and not too many musicians are deliberately out to trash a performance. If you are convinced that you have been mistreated, then don’t work with those people again.

As a silver lining, the composer should remember that s/he will still receive a royalty payment!

How can we be sure our music is receiving the care and attention it deserves?
In my experience, the most effective way for composers to ensure that their music will be well represented is to build a strong community of musicians who are excited about playing their compositions. It can take time, and definitely a bit of trial and error (and probably some less-than-awesome performances), but we owe it to ourselves and to our music to make the effort. Follow the good performances, show the musicians that you appreciate their hard work, and stick with those people.

There are so many things to talk about around this issue—please have at it in the comments section!

(Note: While the sharing of personal experiences is welcome, musician-bashing will not be tolerated. Keep it civil, y’all.)

28 thoughts on “When Bad Performances Happen

  1. Melissa Dunphy

    An experience of mine that comes to mind when reading this:

    I wrote a choral piece about marriage equality a couple of years ago called What do you think I fought for at Omaha Beach? It’s not an easy piece, but I really enjoy singing challenging choral music, so that’s what I write. It was recorded by the Simon Carrington Chamber Singers and has been sung by Chanticleer (squee) and is about to appear on another album by a professional choir. But you know who has performed this piece the most? College choirs. I have had several performances across the country by choirs of undergraduates, sometimes in universities that don’t even offer a music major. Are the performances “good” technically? No, if we’re judging. But to me, those are the performances that matter the most, because almost invariably, I get e-mails and comments from the choir director and/or choir members after the concert, telling me how much the piece meant to them and how excited they were to sing it, and that just doesn’t happen very often with most of my other pieces that might be played by hired professionals. Of course, I love the performances I’ve heard of the piece by professional choirs, many of whom are just as enthusiastic about it, but the performances by inexperienced and often untrained kids, with all their technical imperfections, who want to sing my piece even though it might be too hard for them and it won’t be perfect, are the ones that make me proudest. And I honestly don’t care very much if by some chance, someone in the audience doesn’t think the piece is that great because the choir sang some off notes. I guess I didn’t write it for them.

    Reply
    1. Oscar Oglesby

      Not to hijack this discussion, but this mentality is something that’s baffled me my whole life. What initially sparked my serious interest in music was a series of overwhelming experiences listening to very good recordings. In other words, I discovered within myself a fascination with lapidary sound. To some extent that fascination has expanded to include music’s integration with other forms of expression (as in opera), but it’s always been for me a fascination with sublime artistic objects (whether tangible or ephemeral). Things like the enthusiasm of audiences or performers have always seemed to me completely peripheral and irrelevant, except as matters of practical concern if one is trying to drum up interest to get another performance (whose goal is simply to create another beautiful sound object). If I had a personal orchestra of robots that sounded as good as a real one my music would never leave the house.

      I’m not painting this contrast to criticize, it’s just amazing to me how the word “music” encompasses such vastly different approaches to sonic creativity and its relation (if any) to society.

      Reply
  2. Pam

    Dear Alexandra,

    I’m glad you brought this subject up. Frankly, the question has a couple of answers. If you are composer whose work gets performed regularly, one or two less-than-stellar performances are not going to hurt your career a great deal (upset you, yes; completely destroy an established career, probably not).

    But for many composers it takes an incredibly long time to pull ONE performance together; and it is often costly as well, particularly if one is paying for some of the expenses out-of-pocket. In those cases, a bad performance can be devastating. (I do agree with you that there is nothing to be gained except to be diplomatic and gracious after a poor performance.)

    Where I do not agree with you is about audiences. If the work is new, only trained musicians/composers may sense when a performance included multiple mistakes, was under-rehearsed, or if things like entrances were missed by measures or even, God forbid, pages. You are assuming that 80% of the audience is sophisticated enough to pick up on these issues and be sympathetic to the composer. Many lay people will have absolutely no idea if what they heard actually bore any relationship to what was in the printed score. And, I’m sorry to say, many well-trained musicians may not have any idea either unless the error is positively egregious.

    So, for some composers a bad performance can be a real nightmare. I once worked with a wonderful composer a long time ago who liked to tell me about an experience he had with his mentor, Virgil Thomson. One lesson he brought a score which Thomson immediately started to play as badly as he could at the piano. My teacher protested, saying –“that ISN’T what I wrote”. Thomson replied: “Do you think you are always going to get good performances of your work? Your music should be able to stand up to the most incompetent performances”. I love that story, but I’m not sure I completely sure how realistic it is….

    What I do suggest is that composers avoid submitting a bad recording to an agent, festival, or publisher whenever possible. Send the score instead. In this day and age, even trained people don’t have the time to listen to a very bad performance.

    Reply
    1. Alexandra Gardner Post author

      Thank you for commenting, Pam. I completely agree that submitting a score rather than a bad recording is absolutely the best possible move.

      I am in no way minimizing the impact of a bad performance for composers. I’ve been in that spot you talk about, knocking myself out (including financially) to put a performance together, and have indeed felt devastated when it didn’t go well. Given that what’s done is done at that point, I think the composer can make some choices regarding their actions, and their reactions, to a situation like that in order to allay how “ruinous” a bad performance really ends up being.

      While I do not assume that 80% of the audience is knowledgeable enough to pick up on performance issues, I also do not assume that the audience is completely ignorant. One never knows – maybe the audience will appreciate a piece even if it is seriously messed up! It happens. Maybe the audience has no idea, maybe it knows and doesn’t care. File under “silver lining.”

      Reply
    2. Andrew H

      Sorry to be that guy, but this discussion begs the question– isn’t it in some sense the composer’s fault for writing a piece that’s not followable, such that even the performers can’t get it right? Should we ever allow ourselves to be absolved of that responsibility?

      If you’ve written something so weird that nobody notices when you get a bad performance, the joke’s on you, so to speak. Certainly you’re not doing yourself any favors by blaming it on the performers; and if you can accept some responsibility, you’re a step closer to fixing the problem.

      I don’t mean to pick on you; we all work under limitations of performance and reception. As composers, it’s our job to understand where those lines are, and take responsibility for what happens when we cross them. Honest question: If you’re not writing for real performers and a real audience, with understanding of the shortcomings of each, then what business do you have seeking a performance of your work?

      There’s no shame in writing for yourself, but you can’t expect someone else to understand foreign concepts unless you take the time to teach them. And yes, that means audience education for anything which isn’t closely related to standard rep for that audience.

      Reply
      1. Nick K

        Andrew, I completely agree that the composer needs to make what he or she is doing clear to the performers and audience… however, I don’t think that’s the real issue most of the time. Learning even the most accessible new work takes more time than learning a piece that has already been played–in the former case, there is no recording and no established performance tradition. There is always bound to be a learning curve unless the composer is directly (and I mean verbatim) imitating an established style, and unfortunately, this additional work is something some performers simply don’t have time for in the midst of so many other priorities.

        And it’s often not that new pieces are “so weird that nobody notices a bad performance”–in some cases, a really bad performance can MAKE an otherwise listener-friendly piece “weird.” For instance, if an ensemble member is off by a beat or a measure (as seems to happen in just about every student composition recital/reading I’ve attended) in a Bach Brandenburg concerto, it will completely destroy the counterpoint and sound terrible. This just doesn’t happen as often in Bach because his work has a long and established performance tradition–we know exactly how it is supposed to sound.

        Reply
  3. Bruce Brubaker

    Being somewhat aware of the practicalities of composers’ careers — I’d still like to add that I’m not sure if it’s very helpful to consider a composition the “property” of the composer. As difficult as it might seem, once a text exists it becomes community property, to be read, misread, used and abused by others.

    All those readings — those receptions — become part of the identity of the music.

    Reply
    1. Alexandra Gardner Post author

      Thanks so much for writing in Bruce! This is very true – once it’s out there it’s not *really* just the composer’s thing anymore. I know a lot of people will disagree with that, but it does take a village…

      Reply
  4. Ana Cervantes

    So much to say about this, no time; so I will be brief. I write as an interpreter –a kind of secondary composer, I believe. I’ve given performances of new pieces which even by my own rigorous criteria have been really, really good; a very few which have been sublime; and yes, a very few where I felt afterwards that I could have done a better job. This is one reason why we put pieces into repertoire, no? I for one feel it’s the height of foolishness to spend hundreds of hours preparing an interpretation — only to play the piece two or three times.

    Recently, for various reasons, I’ve been memorizing quite a lot more new pieces, like some of those I’ve commissioned for Canto de la Monarca. Some colleagues think this is crazy; but the fact is that music is inside me now, not outside on the piano’s music stand, and I enjoy that hugely. I blogged about this last year:

    http://anacervantespiano.blogspot.mx/2012/08/thoughts-on-memorizing-really-really.html

    I also want to say that I agree with Bruce Brubaker that once the music is on paper, as it were, the composer has given it to the universe. Its various readings and interpretations –and yes, its various receptions by many listeners– then become part of the identity of the music, as Bruce says.

    Reply
  5. Daniel Wolf

    Great post — particularly for all of us who have experienced a piece of our own music not go as well as planned.

    A performance can fail because the piece itself is compositionally flawed (whether in conception or implementation), the performance in error, or the audience is simply not the right one at the right time. A composer usually can’t do much about the audience (short of papering the hall with debtors, blood relatives and other loved ones and appropriately warming them up — explicating, lubricating, feeding, schmoozing, massaging, gift bagging, cash bribing etc. — beforehand), but responsibility for the composition is all his or hers. Personally, given the degree to which I identify my music with the experimental impulse, I willingly and completely accept the risk of compositional failure: Nothing ventured, nothing gained, nothing learned for the next piece. (Experimental music is always about the next piece.)

    But what about when the performance is under- or unprepared or done in the wrong spirit? What, then, is the composer’s responsibility? In the long run, it may provide useful feedback that the score is, in some way, inadequately communicating its tasks to the performers. But, immediately, in rehearsals before a real performance, if there are warning signs that things are not going to go well the decision about whether to go forward with the performance can be a close one. If I may, here’s an item I wrote about pre-concert triage, what to do when salvaging the performance is still possible: http://renewablemusic.blogspot.de/2008/04/pre-concert-triage.html

    Reply
  6. lawrencedillon

    My answer to this wonderful question has changed in recent years, due to technology. I used to feel quite the same as Alexandra: when a substandard performance is over, it’s over, move on to the next thing. Then one day I found a video on YouTube of a performance of a piece of mine that was shot by a teenager on her phone. I don’t want that video out there; I’m guessing the performers wouldn’t want that video out there, but there it is, collecting hits.

    Reply
  7. Orchestra Guy (Anonymous)

    I know this is an extreme example, and it’s almost off subject, but I think it’s worth mentioning.

    A composer wrote a piece for a chamber group several years ago, and it was unintelligible. Literally. The parts looked like modern art. When we could not play the parts, the composer lost his mind. It never seemed to resonate with him that it was his fault. He left us with the very difficult task of trying to perform an unplayable piece in front of a very big audience without looking like fools. Needless to say the performance was terrible, embarrassing and pathetic. To the composer’s credit, he had to be very talented because he was a fellow at ______, but I’m sure this was a lesson learned. And yes, we were all very competent musicians. Of the quartet, three of us have full-time orchestra positions, but I mention all of this to say no true musician enjoys giving a bad performance. We’ll never really know how it feels as a composer to watch a piece that you’ve been composing for the last two years fall apart in front of your very eyes, but as instrumentalist, we never want to have to slip out the back door as fast as humanly possible because we’ve just had a musical breakdown on stage. Musicians should never perform one of your works unprepared, and as composers, you should always give us a fighting chance to bring forth a compelling new work, because it’s can be equally as difficult to make new music come to life.

    Reply
    1. Alexandra Gardner Post author

      Thanks for your comment, Orchestra Guy! It is very true that responsibility for a performance lies on BOTH performer and composer. Sometimes they are not well matched up, which makes things even more challenging than they already are.

      Reply
  8. David Wolfson

    Sometimes it’s very difficult to tell whether the problem is inadequate rehearsal time or too-difficult music. I’ve found that musicians rarely want to tell you if you’ve written something unidiomatic for their instrument; they seem to feel it’s their responsibility to somehow make it work.

    I blogged on the subject of performance errata a couple of weeks ago:

    http://davidwolfsonmusic.net/blog/?p=458

    Reply
  9. just a horn player

    33 years ago in college I was fortunate enough to play a new work by John Harbison. The music was wonderful, rewarding and very demanding, but the horn part ended on extremely high notes which I slaughtered spectacularly. Harbison thought it was great, just what he had in mind, but I still wince a little 3 decades later! My teacher had the best perspective when I told him what had happened- “Good, I’m glad you missed it. If we play something like that well they will never learn what not to do.”. When a performance does not go well, the first place a composer needs to look is in the mirror, to learn and grow from the experience.

    Reply
      1. Alex Shapiro

        Hmm.

        Yes, of course, there are plenty of sad examples in which a sloppy, careless, arrogant, possibly even maniacal and cruel and [insert your own adjective here] composer has placed music in front of musicians that is not deserving of the players’ time and effort. And there are plenty of sad performances in which the musicians, up for a challenge and eager to please under even ridiculous circumstances, do their very best to make sense of the non-sensible. And, perhaps, fall short.

        But let’s remember that this statement,

        “If we play something like that well, they will never learn what not to do.”

        …could easily be flipped to, “If we don’t compose something like that, the performers will never learn what is possible to play.”

        The soaring bassoon line of “Rite of Spring” at the early part of the last century is just one of a ton of examples in which an intelligent and capable composer decided to stretch the boundaries of what was considered “acceptable and normal.” By doing so, these composers do a tremendous service to our field, by encouraging instrumentalists’ abilities, and broadening their expectations and their sense of what’s possible.

        Not that many years ago in competitive ice skating, a double lutz or axel jump was considered a big deal. Now the triple is standard, and the quad– something formerly unimaginable– is becoming commonplace.

        Human abilities are like the universe itself: constantly expanding. Hooray!

        Reply
        1. Ana Cervantes

          Yes, dear Alex, I totally agree: human abilities are like the universe itself: constantly expanding. And yes: HOORAY!! That is the balance we ALL look for, I believe. And yet another reason why I so value your music, and working with you in that amazing composer-interpreter partnership.

          Reply
  10. Elaine

    Dividing performances along the lines of good or bad is a kind of black and white way of looking at music–the whole practice of it. I don’t think I’m alone when I say that the main reason I write music is to give musicians a way of interacting with one another and a way for them to express themselves in ways they hadn’t thought of on their own. My take on an instrument I don’t play, except in my imagination will be far different from the take on that instrument by someone who uses it as his or her native tongue.

    As composers we can always learn from performances that do not go the way we want them to. Perhaps there was something in the notation that made a passage difficult. Perhaps there were not enough cues in the parts. Perhaps the musicians didn’t understand the way the piece should go. Perhaps the tempo indications were unrealistic. Perhaps the musicians were technically not up to the task of executing the technical demands comfortably. Perhaps someone might have played out of tune because s/he couldn’t hear what was necessary to make it sound in tune. Perhaps a musician or two got nervous because the composer was listening (musicians do tend to consider an authority on what s/he wrote). Perhaps a musician or two got nervous because musicians get nervous. These frustrations happen with all music (except for the presence of the composer or the possibility of the composer hearing a recording and judging the musicians).

    Because so many of us rely on electronic approximations of pieces, we tend to forget the human element involved in interpretation. It is my goal to write as much of my interpretation into the notes, rhythms, and phrase markings as possible, but the rest must be left to the people who play the music. It’s their performance, after all.

    Reply
  11. Chris

    Today, there’s a lot of emphasis on technical perfection, but the definition of success for a composer ought to be that the big-picture musical message is communicated to the listener in performance.

    A truly “bad” performance requires many things to go wrong. As others have mentioned above, the composer needs to think about the performers, maybe even a specific performer (think Duke Ellington). Want “perfection” ? Use midi.

    Reply
  12. Kyle Gann

    I’ve had way too many bad performances in recent years of a certain pattern: The performers are fantastic. The first rehearsal is the day before the performance. Expert sight-readers, they play virtually all the notes, more or less at the right times, but the piece never gels. No time is given to understanding what this particular piece is all about. None of the inner meanings get reinforced; they remain inaudible to even the performers, let alone the audience. And I’m at the point of requiring that there need to be at least three full rehearsals starting at least a week before the performance. I know Cage put much more stringent demands like this in his contracts.

    I had a piano concerto played by a top-notch new-music ensemble on the above pattern. The next year, a group of non-music-major students played it after rehearsing it weekly from January to May. The student performance sounded much more purposeful, intelligent, and together.

    Reply
  13. Liz

    I agree with Chris, at least in part that while the pursuit technical perfection or I prefer excellence as perfection is unattainable, is important there is so much more to it. The energy and the feel of the piece are equally important. A technical piece with no emotion behind it feels empty while a piece imbued with energy can move you.

    Liz

    Reply
  14. Daniel Felsenfeld

    I don’t think we are discussing performances of pieces that are unintelligible, nor are we discussing that inevitably hotheaded and unreasonable composer. I think we mean the uncaring performance, like Kyle mentions, the dashed-off performance.

    Reply
  15. Chris Cerrone

    I think that learning how to cope with what we perceive as bad performances is some of the basic stuff of our profession. I’ve been lucky to have increasing performances in recent years, and with increasing performances comes increasing bad (or substandard or whatever) performances. In the end, I can’t really see them doing any harm except to me psychologically. I certainly haven’t solved that last issue but I can’t imagine a substandard performance really affecting one’s career, seeing as Mozart is ritualistically slaughtered every day by aspiring students.

    However, it is nice to see I’m not alone here. Let’s be thankful that we have performances period.

    Reply
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