How we think about musical mistakes has a huge impact on how we practice, how we learn, how we perform.
One student told me that when she makes a mistake, it’s like falling off a bicycle. Another said it’s like finding herself down the wrong path in the woods. Still another says it’s like tripping on a tree root while hiking. Or like hitting the wrong floor button in an elevator.
Or is it like dropping tomato sauce on a white sleeve, or dropping the wrong ingredient in a recipe? Maybe it’s like saying the wrong word in the middle of a speech, or like missing a fly you’re trying to swat.
Choosing a response
Each of these possible ways to think of musical mistakes implies a completely different response. It may well be that each of your students thinks of mistakes a very different way and therefore responds differently to them.
Do you want a student to feel derailed by a mistake and have to start over, hoping to get it right the next time? Or should they catch themselves after tripping and keep hiking?
Is a musical mistake sometimes equivalent to having taken the wrong trail, and if so, do we start over, or go back 20 feet, or do we go back to a meaningful fork in the trail and choose the right path?
If we hit the wrong button on the elevator, are we humiliated, get out and wait for another elevator, or do we hit the correct button without thinking twice? Is making a mistake like a stain we can’t clean, or a wrong ingredient that ruins the flavor of a recipe–or is it a mispronounced word that is forgotten as the flow of ideas moves forward?
The Donut or the Hole?
Some students seem so worried about hitting the wrong note or making a bad sound that they sound like they are tiptoeing through the music, afraid of being mugged by a mistake. Since there are always going to be mistakes, their fear is bound to be realized sooner or later. It can help such a student to accept that the greater musical skill is found not in avoiding mistakes but in recovering from them, staying on track, keeping the music going. And for that, there needs to be music going on in the musician’s head, the body, the spirit. The fingers don’t always cooperate, but we don’t have to allow them to hijack a performance.
As teachers, listeners, dancers, or players, we want musicians to play with confidence. A wrong note doesn’t stop us from tapping our toes or nodding our heads with the passion of the music. But a timid or fearful sound, or fuzzy timing, does affect us with uncertainty, and it’s hard to feel the music when you’re not sure it will carry through to the end.
A teacher can help identify constructive ways to think of mistakes, and find ways that lead students towards quality musicianship. An occasional poetic discussion of how we think about our mistakes can go a long way towards stirring up some constructive ideas.
Ultimately, of course, it’s not the mistakes or the missed opportunites we care about, but the performance, the music, the flow and the spirit of it.
In other words, it’s not what was missing that we remember, but what was there.