Practice Before Perfection

Things could be worse. Suppose your errors were counted and published every day, like those of a baseball player. ~Author unknown

Our symphonic band’s first concert of this year took place over the weekend and despite practicing, despite some of us being involved for four (or more) years, we finally found a way to crash and burn.

It was bound to happen, but it wasn’t pretty.

Looking back, we should have known it was possible. Yet we didn’t do anything to prevent it.

In January when we started this semester, we selected four pieces that would become the program for our portion of the concert.

One piece — suggested by a student — consistently got ignored.

Maybe our director didn’t particularly like this piece. Maybe he was on the fence about including it in the program. Or maybe he decided the other pieces needed the most work because of their potential for tripping us up.

I think we played through it — top to bottom — once. Maybe twice.

Even during our onstage warmup the day of the concert, our director jokingly said, “We don’t need to go through this one, do we?”

Seeing a few head shakes in the negative, we put it aside. Again.


Now, it’s true that you can only worry about so many things at once. And most of us were focused on our first piece. A student conductor was to direct that one; we’d given her a hard time in practice, and she was fragile.

So it made sense to think: If anything goes wrong, it’s going to be right here.

Nope. It went fine, as did the second piece.

We were all feeling pretty good. Confident, even.

Then came poor neglected number three, Unraveling. Similar to Bolero, this piece starts mysteriously with section after section picking up the main theme and speeding to the end with a cacophony of sound.

We were in the weeds from the get-go. Eight measures of percussion should’ve set the tempo, but, because that section rarely practices with the full ensemble, we really had no clue what their part was supposed to sound like.

Then an alto sax solo was to play the main melody, but despite having his part down pat, he dropped in and out, trying desperately to catch the rhythm and notes.

That caused our trumpet soloist to flub his eight measures — again, despite knowing his part.

And when we flutes were supposed to enter, we didn’t and tried to play catch up.

Well, the song was nearly half over before the full band got involved and managed to put fingers to keys and mouths to instruments.

To say we were “unraveling” would be a gross understatement.

As would it be to say our director was a bit puzzled.

The poor man’s eyes widened; his mouth dropped behind his mask.

Still, I’ve gotta hand it to him, he kept flapping his arms and hoping for the best.

Eventually, we ended together. Whew!

But all of us were so ready to get off that stage that we zipped through our fourth piece at lightning speed. And I suspect more than one compensatory drink was hoisted afterward.

You know, it never pays to assume you know something when you don’t. Or to spread your focus so thin it can’t cover all your bases. But thankfully, we have another concert scheduled, and Unraveling won’t be on the program.

This time, maybe we’ll get things right.

It is wise to keep in mind that no success or failure is necessarily final. ~Author unknown, 1970s


28 thoughts on “Practice Before Perfection

  1. Oh my … that’s tough to take. I know the other end of crash and burn. In our handbell choir, I’ve learned that some pieces fit a choir – and some pieces don’t. Our director picks pieces she likes. She’s good and has a great ear – but sometimes it doesn’t fit …. yet, we keep practicing and practicing – sometimes good – other times a struggle. As you know, performance is one chance. Well – yep – crash and burn – but like you, we ended well.

    • Nice to hear others share in this misery, Frank. It’s embarrassing, but it’s over and done. All we can do at this point is learn from the lesson it taught us … and realize hard lessons like this are things designed to help us grow. Right?!

  2. Oh my! Been there, done that, but not on that piece. I can’t see it clearly, but was the title Unraveling? I think this happens in all community type bands…sometimes we have a piece that is over our head. Years ago our conductor would just solider on and we’d play it at the concert regardless. Now, as we get closer to an event if something just isn’t coming together we usually drop it. Last night was our winter concert, and we dropped American in Paris the week before, though it’s beautiful we just couldn’t get it. We plan on putting it in our last concert of the season, in June. I was sad because it’s so beautiful and so fun to play…but we had a full program and just ran out of time. Last night we were playing a piece that was a compilation of TV theme songs and the two base clarinets just couldn’t get their two measures when they alone brought the band into the next theme…and when they didn’t do it, then the rest of us couldn’t come in either…so that part of the piece was a bit rough. OK a lot rough, but it’s done and the rest of the concert was great, so there you go. There’s always something. Sorry you had that moment, but live and learn…right?

    • Dawn, I’m sorry you, too, had to go through something like this. I suppose it’s easy to say, Nothing ventured, nothing gained. At the time, it hurts, but maybe it will give us all a good laugh one day. I LOVE An American in Paris (it’s really hard and probably way beyond our capabilities, too). I hope you get to do it one concert. Yes, Unraveling is the name of the piece, and it really “unraveled” on us! But, as we’re all fond of saying, what can they do? We don’t get paid, we don’t get a grade. About all we get is the enjoyment of playing together — and our name in the program, ha!

  3. Well, look at the bright side: the other pieces went fine. If your audience didn’t know what the piece was supposed to sound like, they might have assumed it was one of those modern compositions that always sounds discombobulated, even when played perfectly!

    You’re right about one thing: being spread too thin never is a good thing. On the other hand, isn’t that just so human? If we don’t like something, it’s easy to set it aside for ‘later,’ rather than tending to it as we should. Whether it’s housecleaning or exercise, we all do it, so it’s not surprising the same tendency could afflict a concert program!

    • You’re right, Linda. Three out of four isn’t bad, ha! And it is one of those pieces that tends to sound like a mess, so perhaps nobody noticed. It’s not like we were giving it away (say, by all getting up and walking out!)

      I appreciate your saying that it’s really human nature to put off what we’d rather not tend with though. It definitely is. Something tells me that somebody from here on out probably should give our director a gently nudge if that sort of thing happens again!

  4. Debbie, reading about your experience reminded me of very similar moments during my stage career when something (or even many things) went awry during a performance. I myself have even done it. That’s the thing about performing live, you just never know what can happen, particularly when it hasn’t had enough rehearsal. But even well-rehearsed I’ve seen it happen.

    However, one of the positive things about performing live is that at least you get the chance to correct it during the next performance.

    By the way, before I left my comment, I took a listen to the link you left of the piece you played and really enjoyed it. I could tell that it’s not a very easy piece to learn – very intricate.

    Have a terrific Wednesday, my friend! X

    • Ron, I knew you’d appreciate this story! But you know, live theater performances have an advantage over a live concert, in that you have another chance (the next day, usually) to get it right, whereas this was a once-and-done. We flubbed it — that’s all we can say. At least the other three pieces came off well (and at least this wasn’t the last song on the program!)

      I’m glad you liked “Unraveling.” It’s the sort of wormy tune that gets stuck in your head and won’t go away! A few years back, we’d played another of this composer’s pieces, and it went very well. Oh, but we practiced that one!

      Enjoy your week! xx

  5. Well, that’s just a lesson learned, I suppose. And you never know, maybe most of the audience didn’t realize you were having problems with the piece. But in the end, the only thing to do is move on….. These things do happen!

    • Thanks, Ann. I hope you’re right in suggesting most of the audience didn’t realize we were sinking fast! It’s the first time something like this has happened to me, though, and I was suffering. You want so much to perform beautifully for your audience and then you don’t. Well, as you said, time to move on.

  6. I hope it’s not too soon to have a laugh but I chuckled when you said your director kept flapping his arms and hoping for the best. Sounds like a few lessons have been learned and you all have a good story to tell. Wishing you the best of luck with your future practices and concerts!

    • I think he was as surprised as any of us when we completely fell apart, Barbara (though I’m glad you got a chuckle out of my story!) I’ve never had it happen before — never! — and I’ve been playing in Band since I was a kid. I’d have rather pulled the piece than mess up that royally!

  7. Sorry to hear that things unraveled like that. It must have felt excruciating. I find it interesting that both you and Dawn have had concerts about the same time. Hugs and hopes for a better (more practiced) next time.

  8. I will tell you that one Christmas concert, a couple decades ago, when I was playing for a different band we were dong something in the lobby of a senior living center, and we didn’t start well, and it started falling apart, and we weren’t together and try as we might we couldn’t get it together. And the conductor stopped us. In a concert. And he told the audience he had never done that before. Then we started over and it was fine.

    • I’ve never had that happen! I’m pretty sure the seniors were just grateful y’all were playing for them — and starting over meant they got a longer concert!

  9. Haha, poor you! Bet your audience barely noticed – they probably thought it was just some piece of strange modern music and was supposed to sound like that. 😉 I’m impressed you all eventually managed to finish together though – that’s some achievement. I’d probably have burst into tears halfway through and run off the stage!

    • It never occurred to me to flee the stage! I guess a real “band nerd” will hang with the group, sink or swim. Our director is fond of telling us we soar as a group or we crash and burn together. But you’re probably right: the audience (I hope!) thought it was a weird modern piece, not particularly enjoyable, and they merely tuned us out for a few minutes, ha!

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