I witnessed something beautiful the other night in an intimate room here in Manhattan…an error so seamlessly handled as to go almost unnoticed. The singer was turned slightly away from her audience, looking off stage left and sharing a duet with her bassist at the opening of a tune. Their dialogue was sparse and sensual and then, nearly a minute into it and without changing her position or glance, she said, “I need to start this song again” and said his name. And he, without missing a beat and without adjusting his curled position around the strings, continued to play – from the top.
Something was off for her, something about the tune and where it lay, or didn’t lay. Yet within the texture of the piece and both their connection to it, it was a beautiful moment.
Years ago in Germany, in the days when I was attending concerts as much as I could and studying anyone I could conceivably learn from in this craft of mine where the living mentors of a certain age are so few, I heard the great Ingrid Caven in an all Weill-Brecht program. Seated in the nosebleed section of the large theater, I heard her begin a song midway through the program and moments later, stop. “We must start over,” she said to her band. “I have too much respect for the composers.” I remember thinking to myself, “Wow!…even at this level mistakes happen. A singer can derail and have to stop a song.” That was a big gift from Ingrid to me.
Perhaps it came from her time in film. Filmmakers get a break, don’t they? “Bad take? Okay, let’s go for another!” We, of the living stage, get one shot. That’s what we think and what we prepare for. But why? Why aren’t we permitted two and three and four or as many turns as it takes to get it right? Because that’s not what live performance is. That’s what rehearsing is. Because people don’t pay to sit and listen to something that’s OFF. They come to hear what’s ON. What’s good and what’s right.
I think it’s this constant flirtation with danger that makes it so exciting – the ever-present threat of a royal face plant, or worse, complete and mortifying humiliation. The excitement is in the chancy-ness of it all. Yes, it’s why we rehearse and why we don’t stop until we have perfect rehearsals. But then the performance comes and we toss it all to chance. We know firsthand that some of our most sublime moments have come with no preparation at all, and that hours of rehearsal haven’t safeguarded us against the demons of treachery and the bitter agonies of defeat.
In all the years that I’ve been singing and have watched singing happen, with all its false starts and faux-pas, the drawing of blanks and full-on derailment (sometimes within a few measures of the finish line), I know this much is true: the mistake is always worse for the one being watched than it is for the watcher. Most mistakes go unnoticed. And yet getting through them is its own mastery.
For a solo artist on the stage, sometimes stopping a song is the honorable thing to do. That’s been the take-away for me. And like so much of stagecraft, it depends entirely on how it’s handled. Enter grace. Enter respect. Enter humor. And surrender.
There is no law for getting it right the first time or the 10th. Perfection is no law; it’s an idea (usually someone else’s). Something to aim for, but rarely struck. True perfection just happens. It happens wildly, capriciously, full of abandon. It may even slink in from behind masquerading in a circus cape. Being open in the moment is perfection. Being alive to whatever comes, and doesn’t come.
In life, we know when something’s off. When something’s dragging behind or racing ahead or just not in its groove. In life we stop, correct, adjust our steering. Take skating. New York City’s famous ice rinks are beginning to slow down for the season. I passed one in Central Park the other day and paused to watch the skaters. I love ice skating. I don’t do it often enough. I realize I love it because of how it sounds.
When I’m on skates, I have a sense of my own groove. I’m either in it or adjacent to it. My blade is one with the ice or not exactly. It’s the same kind of tuning. Here too, things are best when I’m centered, not digging in and not riding on the edge of it. Things are best when I am not the resistance – when I am the glide. Singing is the same. Resistance or glide. Force or flow.
To someone watching from the perimeter of the rink, I’m skating like a pro. They’re possibly even a little bit lost in my skating. And yet inside me, I know. I know when it’s ON and when it’s OFF. And in singing when it’s OFF for any reason – timing, phrasing, wording, feeling, intention – I have the right to stop it. I owe it to the song that I love, to the composer I honor, to the audience I respect. I owe it to myself.
Stop. Begin again. Breathe through the mistake (mis-take) and seamlessly guide your people through the fabric of the song. “Play it again, Sam. From the top, please.” A mistake can be a thing of beauty for the artist connected to her song. It can be a lovely lesson for living in general, and a listener may take it away as a gift forever.