When the Unexpected Happens

Performing any kind of music for a live audience can be terrifying! But when we have an upcoming performance, we do everything we know how to do to make sure everything is perfect. We practice, we tune and retune, we get enough sleep the night before. That is because our brains need to feel that they have everything under control. And our brains interpret anything even remotely unexpected as a threat. But crazy, unexpected things do happen right when you need everything to go smoothly. Strings break, the pick falls inside your instrument, the sound system goes down, you forget the next note or words. And you fall apart. You don’t function well when things don’t go according to plan.

Here’s what you need to keep in mind.

  • Don’t apologize from the stage. Our function is to take care of the audience. The folks who want to hear you play aren’t supposed to be taking care of you! If you make a mistake, don’t make a face at your instrument, scold yourself, or offer an apology to the audience.  Just keep on keepin' on.

  • Don’t attempt new tricks. Most professional musicians perform about six months behind their progress in the practice room. Be patient and wait for the right time to show off your new skills. When you add nerves to the mix, things can go wrong if you’re not truly ready.

  • Never “go on” without testing your gear. Especially don’t skip the sound check. Even if you’re running behind, don’t give in to the urge to start before you’re sure that you’re ready.

  • Remember Murphy’s law. Murphy’s law is typically stated as: "Anything that can go wrong will go wrong." Well, it doesn't happen all of the time ... but often enough. And I’ve learned the hard way to prepare for the worst so that I'm not thrown off balance by these inconveniences. I'm ready to face it down and overcome.

How Do You Overcome a Fear of the Unexpected?


  • Learn from children. We have all played peek-a-boo with babies when we want to catch their attention. Their eyes are drawn to anything out of the ordinary.  They possess a natural and instinctive ability to embrace unpredictable and amazing things in their environments. They love bright colors and puzzling things. Sadly, many adults seem to have lost their joy in surprises.

  • Leave room in your life for the unpredictable. Give yourself permission to change plans midstream, to do things that aren’t on your calendar, to add new things to your goal list.

  • Be willing to step outside your comfort zone. If someone unexpectedly asks you to play a tune, go ahead. Make their day. Pick up your instrument and play from the heart. Your audience is not looking for perfection. They just want to enjoy the sweet tones of your dulcimer. But ...

Unexpected things will happen.  That's just life.  Always leave room for something to happen (especially during a performance) that you didn't bargain for. Allow for a buffer of time or a little extra money, bring along extra strings … hammers … picks … extension cords, and an extra reserve of patience.

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1 comment

Marvin Glueck

I think it was Steve E. that said durning one of his workshops, "Play as often as you can in public, so you can get used to the interuptions and distractions that will usually come up.  People talking to you while you are playing or unexpected noises...etc".  No one wants to be embarressed, but that can be the best learning tool to play in public.  Not sure who said it but I mention it a lot;  "education cost".  Money, time, strings or even  redoos.............

Thanks for your insights, 

Marvin 

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