Safety Margins for Musicians

April Clayton | July 2018

    Performing artists must deal with the unchangeable element of time. The moments in performance that matter the most and that may distinctly shape a professional life, cannot be called back, edited, or improved. Writers, painters, architects, composers, and others struggle with creation in ways that are quite different from flutists, dancers, master chefs and other performing artists. The question for those in performing careers often becomes, “How best do I prepare to execute my craft at my highest level if I face an unfavorable or unpredictable moment in time?” 

The Necessity of Thorough Practice
    Every teacher hears the all-too-frequent excuse from students, “It sounded lots better in the practice room,” or “I had this perfect when I played it yesterday.” Students are often surprised and disappointed that their lesson preparation is not as thorough as they had hoped. What they fail to grasp is the difference between playing well in a comfortable environment versus playing just as well when facing added stress. If what a student prepares suffers in a lesson compared to the more forgiving environment of a practice room, only consider how difficult it will be to play at the highest level in an audition, competition, or Carnegie Hall recital.
    Musicians must learn the concept of deep and thorough practice in order to succeed in environments of unusually high stress. A successful – let alone inspiring – performance requires that musicians prepare well beyond practice room competence. When learning a new skill or composition, a player should continue to work well past the point when it has been done correctly a few times. It takes much more dedication to solidify new knowledge and habits. These skills should be honed far beyond mere adequacy, when surface perfection has been attained only on occasion.

Understanding Safety Margins
    The demands of the engineering field offer a useful comparison for musicians facing the hours of practice that will help them meet stressful conditions successfully. As engineers design and build, they have to account for many potential variables that may occur. They utilize something similar in concept to deep and thorough practicing. They include safety margins in their designs. These are put in place to meet worst-case scenarios successfully. Safety margins are a matter of math and statistics but apply to musicians 
as well. 
    When a bridge is engineered, the math behind its creation should ensure that it will not collapse, even given worse-than-expected conditions. If it is anticipated that the bridge will never hold more than a certain number of tons, it must be constructed to safely hold many times more than that amount. An excellent example is the Golden Gate Bridge. At the celebration of its 50th anniversary, roughly 800,000 people were in attendance on the bridge in spite of predictions closer to 50,000. Stress inflicted on the structure that day was clear as the bridge visibly flattened. During the celebration there were also strong winds. Some in attendance worried that the bridge might collapse disastrously. However, Charles Seim, a former supervising bridge engineer who was there, stated, “I knew we were exceeding design loads, but I wasn’t worried in the slightest. Even at the maximum design load [there was] a large factor of safety.”
    Other situations in which safety margins are important can be found all around us. For instance, financial planning is done with safety margins. Retirees should do their best to have not just enough money, but rather a healthy margin of funds beyond their anticipated needs. Responsible safety margins in finance ensure that resources do not fail given any number of possible financial difficulties. These could include a home depreciating in value, the nation’s economy falling into a recession, loans becoming more difficult to obtain, or interest rates changing significantly. 

Safety Margins in Practice
    Performers also should incorporate safety margins into their practice to prepare for worst-case scenarios in performance. When you practice, remind yourself that you are engineering your next performance. Flute teachers should help students identify elements of their preparation that should have a safety margin. These might include: 
    •    Technical accuracy – fingers, articulation, general coordination
    •    Intonation
    •    Fundamental tone quality
    •    Vibrato
    •    Rhythm
    •    Knowledge of the composition’s history, and place in music history
    •    Physical preparation
    Teachers may well choose to focus on different safety margins, but they are quite similar across repertoire. Areas to focus on are tone studies, scales and arpeggios, etudes, mastery of as large a repertoire as possible, familiarity with more music beyond that, exposure to the playing of many accomplished performers, and the use of a metronome and tuner. 
    Some teachers take this preparation even further. When I studied at Juilliard, one professor required her students to commit to an aerobic exercise routine for at least one hour a day, four days per week. Because her students were regularly doing major competitions and orchestral auditions, she wanted to build in a safety margin that would improve physical wellness, breathing, and support when the heart rate is elevated, as well as support for the general physical challenges that come with travel.
    Playing for teachers, friends, and colleagues in advance of an important performance provides additional information and experience that will improve the actual event. The practice of performing allows a player to learn what feels different or more difficult in performance than in the practice room.

Rewards of Using Safety Margins 
    The irony of safety margins is that the more of them you have to draw upon, the easier it becomes to play with freedom rather than being too conservative or safe. If something in a performance causes a negative effect that you are not able to control, you will be able to rally more easily in spite of it. You will utilize your safety margins, disregard the impediment, and still give a good performance. I could provide endless examples from my own career when safety margins made the difference between failure and success, but I will limit myself to the top three:

1. Lukas Foss Renaissance Concerto
    I once gave a performance of this concerto with almost no orchestral rehearsal. There is a lengthy and rhythmic cadenza including flute and tambourine in the last movement. The percussionist on the part played several wrong rhythms right away. I instantly decided to play the part I had learned, stay very rhythmic, and pay no attention at all to the tambourine. During the performance, I simply concentrated on my own part. Listening to the recording, I learned (as I had feared) that the percussionist never did manage to find me. If I had not been prepared, I could easily have lost concentration and been unable to play the cadenza well.

2. Liebermann

    As a student at Juilliard, I performed this piece at a noon concert in Alice Tully Hall. It was free, so the hall was packed. I started playing from memory, facing the large audience. About three seconds in, I heard a human whistling sound and soon a wave of disruption swept through the entire hall. I did not understand what was happening, but I could see that everyone was turning to look towards the back of the hall. I felt that I had lost the entire audience. I did not know how to regain control of the situation. All I could do was keep breathing deeply, make sure I was supporting my sound, and continue playing with musicality and conviction. The audience seemed to calm down after several more seconds, but the whistle persisted for a minute or two while I played. 
    The president of Juilliard was in attendance, and after the performance he came and spoke to me. He said that a public school class was in attendance that day, and a young student from the school had whistled during my flute solo from the very back of the hall. My safety margins kept me focused even while I felt vulnerable and confused – and I impressed the president of Juilliard.

3. Higdon Rapid Fire
    I performed this work at an NFA Convention in Charlotte after traveling all summer in Europe. In Paris I had noticed that my flute’s footjoint was not fitting as well as usual. It was getting loose enough that I planned to send it for an adjustment as soon as I returned home. Unfortunately, during my performance, the combination of high North Carolina humidity, loose footjoint, and the very rapid finger motions of the piece caused the footjoint to fall off with about a page and a half left to play. My first thought was, “Sooner or later I will have to stop playing and deal with this situation.” However, my safety margins kicked in, and I freed up enough of my brain to consider the situation while I continued to perform. I was able to quickly think through the rest of the piece and realize that I did not really need the footjoint anymore. I finished without stopping to fix my flute.
    Afterwards, several people even asked me if I had let my footjoint fall off on purpose! Apparently I did not appear as thrown off-guard as I felt. I also earned a standing ovation from Carol Wincenc.

Thanks to Safety Margins
    I have heard and read stories from many other musicians that emphasize the power of safety margins in performance. One I dislike but find convincing is a story Rampal told of performing in an outdoor tent. A big bug flew into his mouth, and he had to make the decision quickly to swallow it so that he could continue to play. This is a scenario I would never envision while in a practice room. I doubt that Rampal did, either; however, he had such a large factor of safety built into his practice and performance routine that he continued unfazed after swallowing.
    While I hope the rest of us are never required to swallow large insects in pursuit of a beautiful performance, try  to build as many safety margins as possible into your preparations. They can mean the difference between a bridge standing or collapsing. For a performing artist, they may make the difference between an exhilarating experience of a lifetime or a failure onstage. Less dramatically, but still important for music students, this extra attention and practice will probably make the difference between a triumph or a struggle in your next lesson. Imagine not having to tell your teacher, “but it was perfect when I practiced it yesterday!”