Joshua Bell on Messing Up His First Violin Competition

Joshua Bell
Lisa Marie Mazzucco

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 Espagnoleby 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. I played the best I had ever played in my life. I felt like I couldn't make a mistake. I was elated, and it could have been the worst day of my 12-year-old life.

I actually ended up getting third prize in the competition and went back the next year and won first prize, but that's not really the point. For me it was a major revelation, and it taught me that when you take your mind off worrying about being perfect all the time, sometimes amazing things can happen. So much of performing is a mind game. You're memorizing thousands of notes, and if you start thinking about it in the wrong way, everything can blow up in your face. When I'm onstage and make a mistake, I remember back to that moment. I learned from that experience how to get into that zone. The competition ended up launching my career and my confidence in a lot of ways. It was a turning point and a lesson I use to this day.

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Interview by Kara Cutruzzula.

Joshua Bell's new albums, French Impressions with Jeremy Denk and The Flowers of War soundtrack, are in stores January 10.

Joshua Bell on Messing Up His First Violin Competition | Culture