When Things Go Wrong

April 8, 2011

Call out measure numbers quietly if you have to, Call out lyrics quietly if you have to, mouth like crazy, do what you can to right the ship as unobtrusively as possible. But above all, don’t lose your cool. Be the rock of Gibraltar. When something doesn’t go as planned, you want everyone looking at you for guidance, not hiding from you.

Try not to stop. If you must stop, do it gently, give instructions quietly and clearly, and begin again.

My friend Megan Lynch told me once that if things go sideways, the group must follow the person who knows least what’s going on. The person who is lost and can’t find their place and is blindly moving ahead incorrectly will probably not regain her footing. Megan gave me that advice in the context of a brass quintet I was playing in with a wayward trombone. But it’s equally true in the theatre. Ideally everyone is listening, everyone is following. But if somebody on stage gets off, and they don’t know where they are, lock on to the person who is lost and find them. Call out measure numbers if you must. Pros are going to try and find the singer anyway, but you have to have the presence of mind to do it too. Vamps and repeats are a godsend there. You give the ‘stop’ hand sign to the singer with your left hand, while you keep the band going with the right. Then give a very strong cue to the singer to go on, and you can correct things quickly.

Another model that might be useful to you is one I learned from my father, who was an Air Force captain. He would always tell me the following list of a pilot’s priorities as he was teaching me to drive:

1) Maintain control of the aircraft

2) Assess the situation and take appropriate action

3) Land at earliest opportunity

And then when I had lurched him around with my horrible steering, my father would add: “And do think about passenger comfort”

How does that translate?

1) Maintain control of the aircraft

Don’t lose your cool. Don’t stop beating time and give up. Keep your wits about you and your hands on the wheel

2) Assess the situation and take appropriate action

What exactly happened? Who is off? How many versions of the piece are going on at this moment? Is the orchestra in one place together and the singers in another place together, or are there more than two things happening? How far out of sync are we? After you have assessed what happened, use what control you have of the forces at your disposal to align the various groups into one unit.

3) Land at the earliest opportunity

In a musical, you must carry on; you can’t cut it short. But a true recovery from a scary moment requires an acknowledgement to the performers that what happened was a frightening moment and that everyone needs to be on their guard. I find a well placed smile can be more sobering and constructive to a performer than a glare. I look at the player or the singer with a smile that says: “We made it, but just barely. Don’t let it happen again.” Shooting the look of death to a performer doesn’t inspire them to their best, it creates a fear response which is counterproductive.

…And think about passenger comfort.

Your audience is your group of passengers. On an airplane, people expect a bit of turbulence here and there. In a school show, it’s live theatre. Things don’t always go perfectly. But the audience needs to know they’re in good, secure, calm hands or the show will be a nail-biting experience. If the captain addressed the passengers of a flight with an exasperated “Folks, I don’t know if we’re going to make it, it’s crazy up here!”, the peace and comfort of the trip will be gone forever. However you solve your problem, do so as much as possible in a way that makes your audience think, “Did something just happen? Oh, I guess not.”



  1. You learned your lesson well. Whether it is an airplane or a theater full of people the carnage can be painful for everyone involved. Great post Peter lots of wisdom and experience wrapped up in this one…..

  2. I don’t envy you down there in the pit, Peter….

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