Practicing an instrument inherently means making mistakes - playing wrong notes, losing concentration, losing your place in the song or exercise. Now's a good time to look at our relationship with the errors we all make along the way. Let's tune in to the benefits we get from our miscues that happen in practice.
1. This Mistake Wouldn't have Happened if I Weren't Practicing
When you choose to sit passively on your couch watching TV or scrolling through social media, you're not exposing yourself to the risk of playing wrong notes. So, when you're actually practicing and missing the mark on a phrase, you can give yourself plenty of credit for choosing (and sticking with) an activity that brings some discomfort alongside its many rewards.
2. This Mistake Happened in Practice, Not Onstage
Every mistake you make during practice reduces the likelihood of your making that same mistake onstage, especially if you concentrate on developing your ability to play that passage that's giving you trouble. Try repeatedly playing that part at a very slow tempo with a metronome, gradually increasing the tempo when you're playing it without much trouble.
3. This Mistake is Training Me to Recover in Real Time
Eddie Van Halen called it “falling down the stairs and landing on your feet.” He also shared advice from his musician father who taught him if you make a mistake onstage, play it that way again with a smile. The audience will think your miscue was deliberate.
My piano teacher in college taught me that recovering from a mistake is the real skill; not the expectation of never making mistakes.
If you can get confident enough in what you're playing, you can move right on from a stumble with your heart and mind still emotionally connected to what you're playing now, rather than dwelling on a mistake from moments ago.
Once you're past the point of trying to learn a piece and you're now rehearsing the performance of it, see how readily you can get back in the flow of what you're playing even when you've hit a clunker. Then you'll be much more resilient onstage.
4. My Mistake May be Telling Me to Simplify
If your mistakes are consistently happening during a complicated passage of a song leading up to a live performance or group recording session, this is valuable information that you're pursing something too difficult musically for the moment you're preparing for. If you're vocally straining at high notes, this may be a cue to lower the song's key. If you're working on an elaborate drum fill or ultra shredding guitar part and you're struggling with a challenging passage, see how you can simplify it for your upcoming gig. Then after the show you can gradually increase the difficulty level - at a slow tempo - with a metronome.
5. My Bandmate's Mistake can Help Us Clear Up a Musical Misunderstanding in Practice
If you're practicing in a group, do you notice a consistent pattern of wrong notes from a bandmate? Is it the same mistake in the same spot in the 1st and 2nd verse? This is a good opportunity to pause the song, go to that trouble spot and loop through it as a band to bring clarity to the whole group's understanding of the song.
Be kind and constructive when pointing out the error. Looping through a short passage surrounding the error should make it clear to all that you're interested in having everyone play the right part, not in belittling your bandmate.
6. My Mistake is an Ideal Object for Compassion
As a user of the Ten Percent Happier meditation app, I've gotten lots of personal development out of compassion practice - where we wish health and happiness for ourselves, those close to us and ultimately all beings. This practice grows the parts of our brains that strive to make life better for ourselves and those around us.
In that regard, approaching practice with a compassionate mindset can really add to the joy of practicing music. When we treat mistakes - our own or a bandmate's - with compassion, we better accept the inevitability of errors along the way toward developing a compelling musical act.
We've examined here the ways in which mistakes serve as markers of the effort you're making, valuable information about the need to simplify, an occasion for compassion toward yourself and others, and a situation to develop resilience to recover onstage. Talk to me in the comments below about your relationship with your musical practice and the mistakes that come with it.