How Many of Our Mistakes Do Audiences (and Other Musicians) Actually Hear?

Nobody likes to crack notes, miss shifts, or play out of tune. Especially in front of an audience. But unless we decide to give up the experience of performing live, that’s just something that comes with the territory.

And…right about now there’s probably a voice in your head saying, “Yeah, ok, Captain Obvious, what’s your point?”

Well, I was watching this interview with cellist Astrid Schween the other day, and heard her describe how important it is to understand the difference between practice mode and performance mode (it begins at 8:42 here).

Whereas practice mode is characterized by careful self-monitoring for mistakes and imperfections, analysis, and critique, performance mode is where we are focused more on sound, phrasing, and the beauty in a piece that we want an audience to experience. Which, when you think about it, are about 180 degrees in the opposite direction from one another. So there is this interesting paradox about practicing, where the more time we spend in practice mode, the better we get at doing something that is a total no-no in performance. What the?!

And what’s so bad about playing out of tune or having a tremor in our sound anyway? Well, for me, the honest answer is that playing less than perfectly made me feel embarrassed, especially in front of friends, teachers, or other musicians. But my teachers tried to get me to focus more on the bigger reason for obsessing about the little details, in that little imperfections in pitch, sound, rhythm, and so on, distract the listener’s ear, and detract from the beauty of the piece.

But how distracting are they really? And do our musician friends and colleagues who make us the most nervous really notice as many of the mistakes we think they do?