When Bad Performances Happen

When Bad Performances Happen

Performances are not always what we would like them to be, or what we expect them to be. We have all been caught by surprise by a performance we thought was going to go well and then didn’t. How can we be sure our music is receiving the care and attention it deserves?

Written By

Alexandra Gardner

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.)

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