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Shoptalk: concert mishaps and other minor disasters

flying cymbal

Illustrations by Donald Gardner 

As part of his wry cartoon series The Far Side, Gary Larson introduced the world to Roger, a bespectacled percussionist, at the back of an orchestra, who tells himself repeatedly, “I won’t screw up” as he prepares to make his musical entrance. In his determination to nail his part, Roger has inexplicably picked up only one cymbal.

Not too many years removed from that imaginary failure, a very real musician, now a staffer here at the Yale School of Music, witnessed a more disruptive incident. In that situation, a percussionist whose name was not Roger stood at the ready, a crash cymbal in each hand, waiting for an entrance in a performance of Pictures at an Exhibition. As a result of a fortissimo crash, one of the straps broke and the liberated cymbal took flight. It seemed to hang forever in the air above the brass and woodwind players before landing cacophonously among them. Fortunately, no injury was sustained beyond those which bruised the percussionist’s pride and marred an otherwise magnificent performance.

No musician is immune to onstage mishaps. While horrifying in the moment, these uncomfortable experiences are something all performers deal with on some level. By sharing several anecdotes from our students and faculty, we hope to give you a laugh and help you exorcise any embarrassment you might still carry from your own performance misfortunes.

Without further ado, here are descriptions of semi-disastrous events as recounted by colleagues who, while laughing in the retelling of the mishaps, weren’t so amused at the time.

Conversational styles have been disguised and names and instruments have been withheld to protect those who shared their stories.

Device failure

I was playing a children’s concert and my iPad, which had been fully charged, died. We were playing an arrangement of Mozart’s Variations on “Ah vous dirai-je, Maman” (“Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”). Obviously, there was no stopping the performance. I had learned the melody on piano as a kid and could mostly recall the left-hand part and used that to improvise the rest of the tune.

No children reported their disappointment.

Instrument failure (experienced by the same musician whose iPad died)

At yet another children’s concert, two screws fell out of my instrument, and I had to use my thumb as a moveable key.

It’s apparently uncommon for two screws to simultaneously fall out of this particular instrument. Go figure.

Navigation failure

I drove to a recital on Long Island and got completely lost. This was before cell phones. I had a watch and could see how late I was. Finally, I stopped and knocked on someone’s door and said, “I have a recital and I’m totally lost. Could I use your phone to call the venue?” Directions in hand (on paper), I got to the venue about twenty minutes late. The audience was there and so I went right from the car to the stage in my street clothes.

Asked how the performance went after what must’ve been a stressful situation, the musician said, “It went great.”

no page turn

Page-turn failure

I watched a page turner turn a page when the pianist nodded. The pianist, it turned out, was simply nodding in time with the music. “No!” the pianist said, quietly, and aggressively turned back to the previous page.

Upon hearing the latter story, the above-mentioned YSM staffer remembered serving as a page turner and was lost for much of the performance, which accompanied a battle between the page turner and the pianist, who were not on the same page. 

Seating-chart failure

My sister is a violinist, and she was concertmaster for a performance of Sheherazade. Her chair was at the very lip of the stage and at the beginning of one of her solos one of the legs of the chair slipped off the stage and she toppled onto the floor in front of the audience. Our mother was at the concert and ran to my sister, asking, “Is the violin OK?”

Neither the instrument nor the sister was harmed.

Set failure

During a high-school production of Hairspray, a vocalist paying the role of Edna Turnblad walked onstage to open a door, which wouldn’t budge. A second, more muscular try at the doorknob destabilized the entire set, which collapsed, leaving the cast to improvise, holding the audience’s attention while the crew cleared the stage.

Taped shoes

Wardrobe failure

A string player in a youth orchestra wore white sneakers to a performance. The fix, obviously, was for the stage crew to wrap the musician’s feet in black gaffer tape to match the concert dress. The string player forgot all about the tape until it was time to take the shoes off, which was a hassle.