How Pro Singers Handle Mistakes

We all have material that could make a great fail video -says Greg Barker

This article comes from The Ultimate Guide to Singing, the most comprehensive book on the market for covering on all aspects of singing.

Ever watch a fail video? Yes, you have. Admit it. 

The large man who jumps from the upstairs window into the tiny kiddie pool below, the rope swing that detaches at just the wrong moment (over the inevitable pit of mud — or cow pies), the driver who can’t parallel park if their life depended on it, the news reporter at the local farm who gets butted in their butt by a butt-crazed goat, the drunk 7-11 criminal who broke into the store but can’t break out 

… ahhh … what a blessed relief to watch other people mess up. Kind of makes me feel better about my life. Hmmmm…no wonder these clips are so addicting…

The truth is that we all have our personal list of fails that could be compiled into a juicy video — most of us are just lucky we haven’t got 17,798,563 views.

After all, you are putting yourself in front of other people, exposing a vulnerable part of your soul though your voice and relying on technology to deliver. So many things can go wrong in the process. And they do. 

Pros Engage with What Went Wrong

It’s time to reveal what separates the pro from the amateur. It isn’t musical genius (well, sometimes it is). It isn’t the silky quality of their voices, the star quality of their looks, the lucky breaks (this doesn’t hurt) or the fact that they married a famous producer (ok, yes, it happens) — it is that they can watch their own fail video, figure out what there is to learn, move on and never wallow in that video again. 

In other words, they engage with what went wrong, evaluate it, make some changes and keep going. 

One of the fascinating discoveries of interviewing so many successful vocalists through the years is that whether they’ve been lucky to achieve “star status” or not, they all are pros for this reason: 

they’ve engaged with their mistakes, learned from them and moved on without meditating on them. They’ve also bothered to take into account audience reaction to their performance — live or virtual. 

They haven’t rolled over onto their backs, exposed their belly button and begged the critics to walk all over them until they were a pulverized mess. But they did stop, look, listen and decide on how to best tweak things. This is what you must do with your own singing. When you have a flop (not “if”), learn from it and be damn persistent about getting back out there on that next balcony to jump into that kiddy pool (except that this time you will have purchased a slightly larger one … ).

Here are two examples of how singers I’ve met have dealt with mistakes in performance 

A Mistake in the Midst of Performance

Donna McElroy is a Grammy nominated vocalist and Associate Professor or Music at Berklee College of Music. Here are her insights on dealing with a mistake:

Even when we’re relaxed, well prepared, and totally focused, mistakes can happen. Many performers become embarrassed and distracted, and find it hard to concentrate on continuing through the performance. They often telegraph the mistake with their eyes, or make subsequent mistakes due to the distraction.

When I make a mistake I remind myself that it is more apparent to me than anyone else. Most of the time, the mistake I made was noticed by no one but me or the keyboard player, or possibly the songwriter if they’re present; in other words, the whole gig didn’t fall apart because of that misbegotten phrase. 

Even in those very rare cases when a mistake is apparent to the audience, the audience will easily accept it and move on if they can see that you have done the same. Sometimes a glitch can even bring out more support from your listeners if it is handled quickly and honestly.

I remind myself that there’s really nothing I can do about the previous song, and I certainly don’t have to let the rest of my show suffer just because of any lapses in concentration. 

I’ve also learned at the end of the gig to accept any and all compliments with grace and a smile (I’ve practiced this in the mirror!), and not to correct the audience members.

The Sound Stopped Working During Her Show

Katherine Ellis is a hit dance music songwriter, vocalist and performer. She shares about the sound going out and also about singing to an audience of 8 people.

I was singing at a gay club in Melbourne once, and the sound suddenly stopped — in the middle of my show. How did I handle it? I very theatrically “fired” the DJ and proceeded to do a whole song a cappella. I got everybody clapping and they loved it. Later in the show, when the sound was working again, I magnanimously forgave my DJ and made it all into a big joke. 

By putting yourself on that stage, you are saying, “I am in charge.” The audience will always look to the person holding the microphone — that’s you. Regardless of mistakes, illness or horrible sound problems, there is always something you can do to handle it.

What if you get a sound guy who is not paying attention during your show? Take charge. Ask someone near the stage (a promoter, a DJ or someone assisting you) to go and tell the soundman what you need. Even if he is sitting there texting the whole time and you hate him, you cannot look annoyed or worried.

I once showed up to a venue that holds 1,000 people and due to some botched publicity, there were only eight people in the audience! I knew I had to have fun with it, so I dramatically shouted, “Hellooooooo London!” Earlier, I had met two fans in the ladies room who were really excited to see me. During the show, I invited them on the stage to sing background vocals. I found a way to entertain myself and my tiny audience.

If someone has made an effort to get dressed up and come out to see me, he or she deserves to be entertained. Inevitably some gigs are better than others, and an unforeseen circumstance can leave you feeling disappointed. But if one person has had a good time, then it’s worth it.

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