So why do we have such a problem with mistakes?
Well, we actually have two related problems with mistakes, one we know and one we don’t know that keeps the first one in place.
We all tend to think that mistakes are a problem, that they’re “bad” and “wrong” and shouldn’t happen. But the real problem is that there are two kinds of mistakes, some of which “should” happen, some of which “shouldn’t,” and we have a hard time telling the difference. This leads us to lump all mistakes into the “shouldn’t” category. This makes it impossible for us to learn from the ones that “should” happen. This failure to learn makes it harder for us to recognize the different kinds of mistakes. We get ever more down on ourselves as the vicious cycle repeats. Let’s bust out of it.
When you learn a song properly, slowly, carefully, even then, it’s normal to once in a while make mistakes while playing. Your brain isn’t a computer or a machine, it’s a complex living thing, interacting with a complex world outside itself. Sometimes, something may get in the way even with a piece you’ve carved deep in the sand and learned very well. This is not only normal, it’s even a good thing. At worst, you’re just being told you’re not perfect, which nobody is. Even Michael Jordan missed the basket sometimes, so you may as well get used to being imperfect, too. At best, though, you’re being told that you may have an opportunity for deeper learning. When you make a mistake, then, there are two useful things to do.
The first is to play through the mistake — just ignore that it happened and keep going. This accomplishes two things. First, it reinforces the learning you’ve already done, helping you prove to yourself that you do, essentially, already know the piece, despite the mistake. The second thing it does is, quite simply, make the piece come out sounding better. If people were singing or playing or dancing along to your performance, or even if they were just listening, playing through a mistake allows them to just keep going as they were. They’d hardly notice that it happened. But if you stop and go back to try again and get it right, you totally disrupt the natural flow of the music. People then can’t help but become extremely aware of the mistake. Trying to fix the mistake, then, is actually a second mistake you’d be making, and two wrongs don’t make a right!
The second thing to do when you make a mistake is, later on once the performance is done and you have an opportunity to practice, to try to remember where the mistake was. What the mistake was isn’t so important. Don’t dwell on the nature of the mistake itself, on what went wrong. Just identify where in the piece it happened, and go over that part slowly and carefully a few times the way you know it ought to be played. This carves your circle in the sand a bit more, reinforcing the correct performance.
All of this increases your level of musicianship in a way that you wouldn’t have been able to do if you hadn’t made the mistake in the first place. The mistake helps you make your playing more conscious, and that then paradoxically helps you make the correct performance become more unconscious, more second nature.
That’s the essence of an acute mistake, a mistake that just happens in the moment for some reason but isn’t an indicator of any kind of more serious problem. It’s like when a healthy person gets a cold. We might be a little disappointed to get sick and lose some productivity, but for our bodies, it’s an opportunity to exercise the immune system and actually make us stronger in the end. When we respond effectively to acute problems, we end up the better for it.
But then there’s that second kind of mistake — the chronic mistake, the one that happens over and over. You might not see it as the exact same mistake each time — you might just see yourself making some kind of mistake at the same point in a song whenever you play it. You might not even see it as a mistake at all. Perhaps you play the piece the same way each time and you think it’s just fine, but there’s actually something wrong with it, something you’ve done over and over without even realizing it should have been some other way. You learned a mistake. As soon as someone points it out to you, what had been fine with you a moment before is now suddenly revealed to be a chronic mistake. Whether you ever thought it fine or not, once you experience a mistake as repeating, you’re going to get more and more frustrated.
This, too, is something we see in physical health. Someone can be tired all the time, or have aches and pains that don’t go away, or maybe much more serious or even life-threatening medical conditions. These kinds of things are almost always traced to a failure to maintain good health in the first place. If there’s any recovering from these kinds of conditions, it usually involves a lot of effort to deal with any immediate threats of the conditions themselves, plus a lot more work in the form of often significant lifestyles changes to promote good overall health.
With a chronic musical mistake, essentially the same things are required. You have to somehow deal with whatever frustration has built up around the mistake, and you have to commit to stopping your fingers from producing those mistaken patterns. Then, you have to promote good musical health with that piece. In a sense, this involves the same thing that you do in response to an acute mistake — carefully going over the proper way of playing that part of the piece. The difference is that you never properly learned it in the first place, so you can’t simply reinforce it, because there’s nothing present to reinforce. Instead, you must relearn that part from scratch — and since you’ve now got a chronic mistake carved in the sand and standing in the way, the process of relearning also involves unlearning the mistake. You’ll get where you need, but it’s going to take a fair amount of work — a musical lifestyle change for that piece.
Chronic mistakes, then, also point to some learning that needs to be done. But when you’re knee-deep in your chronic mistake, you have no idea what there is to do. You’re stuck in your rut, getting ever more frustrated, telling yourself that you just can’t get it right. And the thing is, you’re right — as long as you stay where you are, you really can’t get it right, you really can’t get to that learning that needs to be done.
Some say that whatever doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, but we can now see that that’s really not true. We’re only made stronger when we find a way to learn from something that hurt us, when we know how to grow our way past an obstacle, when we meet a challenge. With something we can’t find our way out from under, with disappointments we fail to get past in a way that helps us avoid similar disappointments in the future, be very clear that these kinds of things leave us not stronger but weaker.
If you move to a different place, if you take a different perspective, you can see what’s going on for what it is. You can say, “Oh, this isn’t an acute mistake where I just need to try again a few times, this is a chronic mistake, where I never really had it well enough in the first place.” That’s when you’ll know that it is possible for you to get it right, to get to that learning that needs to be done. You just have to stop what you’re doing and get back to basics, get back to the original instructions for learning that part of the piece.
At this point, you take it slowly, slowly, slowly, being as patient as necessary as you do what you should have done in the first place. Indeed, the very existence of a chronic mistake proves that you didn’t do what you should have done in the first place. If that frustrates you, that’s understandable, but don’t dwell in the frustration — be grateful that you’ve become aware, that you now have a fantastic opportunity to make real progress.
Now is the time to not only go back to those original instructions but to stick with them as long as you really need in order to really learn that element, to get to know it well, comfortably, smoothly, evenly. It will take more work than it would have the first time around, but as long as you stick with the learning techniques instead of abandoning them too early as you may have done initially, you’ll get there.
Hopefully you’ll not only have unlearned the chronic mistake and learned the proper way to play that part of the piece. Hopefully you’ll have learned two other things as well.
First, you’ll have learned that it is possible to find your way out of the hole of a chronic mistake. You’ll be better at distinguishing acute mistakes from chronic ones, better at recognizing when a mistake is chronic and at knowing how to deal with it. You’ll then be better able to handle such situations in the future.
Second, and perhaps most importantly, you’ll have hopefully reinforced the notion of learning slowly and properly, of drawing that circle in the sand as accurately as possible as often as possible, so that any new things you learn from that point forward will be learned as well as possible from the start. Then, you’ll have taken a significant step toward preventing future chronic mistakes from ever happening — a step toward promoting better overall musical health for yourself.
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