My Favorite Mistake

Article excerpt

Violinist Joshua Bell on the mind game of performing.

When I was 12 years old I entered my first violin competition, the Stulberg International String Competition. Almost everyone else was college-age, so I wasn't expecting to do very well. I was playing a violin concerto called Symphonie Espagnole by Lalo. It starts with a very diffi-cult opening right off the bat, sort of like if a skating routine started with a triple axel. I began playing, and I messed it up worse than I ever could have imagined. I had never made such a terrible mistake at the beginning of a piece. My parents came all the way to Michigan for me to be in my first big competition, and it was a completely embarrassing way to start.

No one tells you what to do if you completely flop at the beginning of a performance. My teachers had never taught me, and I didn't know the etiquette, but I think I did the right thing in the moment. Instead of just playing on, finishing the piece, and feeling lousy, I completely stopped. I turned to the audience and said, "I'd really like to start over." I already felt like I'd lost the competition and the chance to do well, but I really wanted to try again.

It was a quick decision and could have been the worst performance after that because my confidence was down. I screwed up, and when you do something like that it can psychologically totally ruin your performance. But some-how it turned in the other direction. I got into this zone of feeling completely liberated and relaxed because I knew I had lost. …