Resilience and Recitals

Nothing ever goes as planned.

He takes a deep breath, blows, and only air comes out. She practiced hundreds of hours and spent weeks preparing only to have her performance derailed by a train. As a teacher, I know that despite careful preparation, there’s always something that doesn’t go quite right during the recital. But I don’t care if my students play every note right or can reproduce their most beautiful phrases. What matters to me is what comes next after the unexpected happens. I’m interested in resilience.

students of Marlene Hartzler

studio November 2017

The first notes are unfocused and wobbly. Then he takes another deep breath, resets the embouchure, and continues to make adjustments. By the middle of the piece, the flute is singing and I notice that he’s not struggling anymore. The music ends on a strong high note.

It’s her first recital and the freight train chooses the middle of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” to blast the horn. It startles her and her eyes dart left. Just as quickly, she closes her eyes and picks up where she left off.

At their lessons this week, we will talk about their performances. Both students remember the mistakes, but when we listen to the recording, they are both surprised by how quick the recovery was.

To Err Is Human

Live music performances are special and exciting precisely because they are not perfect. Artists achieve something close to perfection in the recording studio where the acoustics can be controlled and notes can be edited.  For me, the live music experience is far more interesting.

Did you know that in every Persian rug there is a deliberate mistake? According to David J. Wilkins, and other oriental carpet experts, perfection is neither possible nor desirable:

In many handmade Persian rugs and carpets you will discover the deliberate mistake. Followers of Islam believe only Allah makes things perfectly, and therefore to weave a perfect rug or carpet would be an offence to Allah. The original deliberate mistake is usually made in the execution of the pattern of the rug and not in the dying of the wool or silk, and certainly not the quality of the weaving. Genuine deliberate mistakes in oriental rugs and carpets may be very difficult to spot and can be as subtle as a different colour used in a flower petal.

“So You Were A Flop”

In A Soprano On Her Head, Eloise Ristad challenges musicians to consider the worst-case scenario. Chapter 14 is bluntly titled “So You Were A Flop.” We must give ourselves permission to fail. Doing so is not a magic charm to prevent mishaps. When we put ourselves out there, sometimes we won’t live up to our own expectations.  However, giving ourselves permission to fail takes away the fear that paralyzes us and prevents full artistic expression.

Eloise Ristad helps us remember that our performances are not us. We are not defective but perfectly human. When we fall, we must dust ourselves off and try again.

In a previous blog article, I talked about Ristad’s refreshing ideas about confronting “The Judges” of self-criticism. Negative self-talk can have devastating consequences on performance. I encourage my students to think of positive affirmations that they can repeat when “The Judges” start their commentary. Everyone will have different affirmations, but some ideas include:

  • I’ve got this.
  • I am strong and brave.
  • I love this music.
  • Everyone likes to hear me play.

What happens next?

Dan Santant’s children’s book After the Fall (How Humpty Dumpty Got Back Up Again) is a beautiful story for young and old alike. We all know the rhyme

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,

Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.

All the king’s horses and all the king’s men,

Coundn’t put Humpty together again.

Imagine that Humpty, after surviving a humiliating accident, returns home and resumes his life. How can he possibly get over the shame, the pain, and the fear of falling? One step at a time, he reclaims the failure and moves on to bigger and better things.


As a mother, I am encouraging my kids to learn resilience. It’s really hard sometimes to let them fail, but I know that small failures are learning opportunities. When my son participated in the Egg Drop Competition at school (not too different than Humpty Dumpty, in fact!), I knew that his design wasn’t going to work. I could have intervened and given him some better packing materials, but the project was all his.  His egg broke, of course, and he didn’t win, but I hope he learned something about engineering and design.

Angela Duckworth, who wrote a book on the subject, believes that “grit” is one of the most important skills in life. It’s a skill that can be cultivated at every age and stage. Resilience is more important than talent, according to Duckworth.

In sum

Recitals are great opportunities for practicing resilience. Whether it’s a misbehaving embouchure or a blasting train whistle or something else unexpected, there will be moments of unexpected difficulty. With a little bit of cultivated grit, we can change an unpleasant experience into a moment of triumph.