When you started playing your instrument at a young age, there were no immediate expectations about your playing ability. If anything, you were expected to make mistakes. When you first started playing soccer, first started writing your name with a pencil, first started walking, no one had any expectations for you, other than the fact that you would undoubtedly improve over time as long as you continue to pursue the same goal and make small changes along the way. It is so obvious in these terms, but we can’t seem to remember this in the practice room.
When I was 10 years old and just learning the flute, I really loved to play, but sometimes my patience was much too short. I remember screaming and biting my head joint (I know…) whenever I made the same mistakes several times in a row (I know, I know). I didn’t yet have the patience to understand that mistakes were definitely going to happen, but that the only way to avoid them was to make a physical and mental change, not scoff at myself. I don’t think this phase carried on for long (thank goodness!), but I think this violent reaction, or sentiment, is very common across musicians of all ages.
Elementary students who are playing an instrument for the first time are expected to make many mistakes, but over many attempts, adjustments, and hours put into the instrument, they will undoubtedly improve by the time they reach high school. If they got upset with themselves every time they made a mistake, we would remind them that it’s a process, not a race. We would tell them to approach their practice differently if they tried the same thing again and again with no luck. It wouldn’t make sense if they played everything perfectly on the first try or had perfect tone. Part of learning is failing. We know that.
But when it comes to our own practice, our ego gets in the way. We can’t play our scales or etudes quickly or flawlessly and we berate ourselves. No offense, and I mean this with all the love in my heart, but why do you expect yourself to be flawless? Our egos raise our standards far past what’s feasible in the learning stage we are in. We roll our eyes when we make small mistakes, even though we would tell a small child in the same position that mistakes are a part of learning. For some reason, we don’t carry our logic through. Because we are older and “wiser” than children, we expect that we are not only, smarter, better players, but somehow, too good to approach practicing in the same way. We shouldn’t have to slow down. We add so much shame to mistakes.
The thing about mistakes is that they themselves are not bad, but they are sending us a message. Occasional mistakes send us the message that we are in the process of learning. Frequent mistakes of the same kind send us the message that we need to change an aspect of our practice. Mistakes themselves are not bad. We add emotion to them. But they can be little indicators that we are not setting ourselves up for success.
It doesn’t matter that you made a mistake, but it does matter that you pay attention to what happened, narrow down exactly where it happened, and figure out what you physically need to do to change the outcome for next time. Do you keep missing the G# in your A major scale? Instead of bulldozing through the scale again, actively think about that G# as you ever so slowly try the scale again, or better yet, just the notes in the scale that surround the G#. Which fingers are giving you trouble? Consider looking in the mirror to find that answer. Do you keep hesitating or fumbling over notes in your etude? Is it every single measure, or just a few tricky measures with leaps and many accidentals? Once you can diagnose the problem, you can prescribe yourself a new, specific direction. In general, there is so much that can be solved with slow practice.
When we play through music and make mistakes and frantically start and stop and restart, we cringe at the sounds coming out of our instrument. It can feel embarrassing to show proof of your abilities when you thought you could have done better. On the other hand, the way to success is paved by mistakes. We just need to ask ourselves for the same grace we would give to a child learning something new. As hard as it is, try to separate your emotions from your mistakes. Your self worth is not tied to correct notes, fast tempos, and flawless technique. Mistakes are objective indicators of what you can change to create music that is expressive, communicative, and fluid.
When we are learning to read music, play scales, learn rhythms, etc., our goal is often to play accurately (and with passion!) so that we can master the vocabulary it takes to play music. The reason we fix mistakes is to communicate our message and musical sentiment more clearly. However, the way we must approach individual mistakes, and the attitude we have immediately after we make a mistake, can be one that is much lighter and kinder to ourselves. It will result in calmer, more enjoyable, and more expressive music making. Our mistakes are not telling us to be ashamed, they are telling us how to learn.
Mistakes themselves don’t matter, but what you do with them does.