Mistakes – A Valuable Experience.

It was a great privilege for me to attend a concert by the famous classical guitarist Andres Segovia. This guy was considered to be the Grandfather of modern classical guitar and I was totally psyched to be witnessing a real living legend. Segovia was, at this stage, a very, very old man. He was led to the center of the stage by the concertmeister – a journey which took the best part of five minutes. The audience were in awe. You could hear a pin drop. Eventually the old man was settled into his seat and started to play.

I happened to be sitting next to a friend of mine who was a very highly accomplished classical guitarist himself, and somehow my sixth sense picked up on the fact that he was not enjoying the concert as much as I. Afterwards I asked him what he thought and for twenty minutes he moaned about all the ‘mistakes’ that Segovia made. My friend knew the pieces in the program, so I presumed he was talking from an informed position.

Had his ‘mistakes’ mattered to me? No.

Had his ‘mistakes’ mattered to everyone else at the concert? A few, perhaps.

Had his ‘mistakes’ mattered to the old man Segovia himself? He may have cried like a baby back in his dressing room, or he might have gone out for a nice curry with his manager. We will never know.

Walking in a straight line is easy… unless you are on a tightrope.

Playing your Grade 5 pieces in your bedroom is easy. Playing it in the actual exam is considerably less so. What a shame, and in many ways how completely illogical. Nonetheless, we fear the possibility that we might make a mistake and put ourselves under excessive pressure. If we knew that we were not really on a metaphorical tightrope, we would be free to really enjoy performing.

At this point you may think that the rest of this article is going to be all about confidence. There are millions of articles on that subject already but not many on the mistakes themselves. We all make them, after all.

Giving yourself permission to fail has an uncanny way of making you far less likely to make mistakes.

The degree of disaster is proportional to the profile of the gig. Messing up the bridge of ‘The Way You look Tonight’ at the Be-Bop Club on a Friday night is a lot less of a disaster than messing up the bridge of ‘The Way You look Tonight’ at the Oscars Ceremony in L.A. on live TV. In those two cases the pressures on the individual should be hugely different, but sometimes the pressure we put ourselves under is inappropriately high. Reminding yourself that you are at The Be-Bop club and not in Los Angeles is extremely comforting and getting things in perspective is always a wise strategy.

So if mistakes are an inevitability, what can we do about them? Well, nothing, I’m afraid. We cant do anything about them because as soon as you have acknowledged something as ‘a mistake’ it is, by its very nature, a historical event. It is in the past. Unless you are a Time Lord, time-travel is notoriously tricky and you wont be able to go back and fix it. Mistakes happen. Deal with it (I’m going to help you with that shortly).

One way to deal with it is to ask a simple question: “Did anybody die?” Usually the answer is ‘no’. After using this sentence for a while you can predict that the answer will almost always be ‘no’.

If you teach, when a pupil hangs their head in shame for playing an F natural instead of an F sharp, just ask them: “Did anybody die?” Once the giggling has subsided, it is important to immediately follow up with: “Now play it without the mistake and hear how much better it sounds”. This does something very important: it keeps the learning experience positive. You are not criticising them for doing something wrong, you are focussing on getting them to fix it.

Take a step back and ask yourself what would be the worst mistake that you could make and what would actually happen if you made it. Now ask yourself what the likelihood is of you making that mistake. Chances are that this nightmare melt-down is so outrageously and preposterously unlikely that you will simply laugh it off. However, if you think it is remotely possible then you probably need to go and do some more practice.

All books on music practice seem to agree that you need to practice until you can get it right, then continue practising until you cannot get it wrong!  Unfortunately, as youngsters when we are learning our instrument, we may not be aware that being able to play a piece is not necessarily the same as KNOWING a piece. We realise this when we step out onto the stage, by which time it’s too late. We have to perform our pieces at the cutting edge of our abilities – we have no headroom. Our ‘straight line’ has been turned into that metaphorical ‘tightrope’. The result of this lack of preparation can then imprint on the young mind and be the seed of stage-fright in the future. It makes us terrified of making mistakes.

The more you practise and prepare, the stronger your safety net will become. Say to yourself: “If the concert tonight is a complete disaster, it will certainly not be my fault!” Like a trapeze artist, you know the safety net is there, but you are a good enough performer not to need it.

Dealing with it:

We all make mistakes. What can we do to lessen the awful feelings that we associate with our greatest blunders? I expect that if I asked you to imagine your best ever performance, you would probably see yourself on a stage somewhere playing a great gig. You would probably be looking down on the ‘you’ in the picture as you performed. You may be a fair distance away from the picture you see. Alternatively, if I asked you to remember a moment when you made a really big mistake, you would perhaps ‘re-live’ the memory as if you were actually there, seeing what you saw and, more importantly, feeling what you felt.

In the first memory you would be looking at yourself, in the second scenario you would actually be in yourself as you re-lived the memory. In the first type of memory you are dissociated, the second memory you are associated. Knowing the difference between associated and dissociated memory is extremely helpful when it comes to controlling your feelings.

Unfortunately for most of us, we code the two memory-types the wrong way around. It would be infinitely better to be associated into the really wonderful memories and completely dissociated from the bad memories, but sadly that’s not often the way it transpires for us. When we learn to pull away from the mistakes and look at the big picture from a distance, we get a much more balanced (and correct) perspective on how we played. The negative feelings become far, far less powerful than they used to be.

When listening to the playback of a recording in the studio, instead of associating into your OWN playing, associate into someone ELSE’S playing. If, whilst associated into the trumpet part you fail to notice the mistake you made in your (insert your instrument) playing, then you can bet that nobody else spotted it either. Generally people focus intensely on their own part when listening back to recordings – it’s fun to swap around and there’s a lot to learn by doing this.

This association/disassociation thing is at the core of many self-help therapies which help us to ‘deal with things’. The mp3 audio which you can download from the link below talks you through this process in detail. Once you have learnt this simple technique, you can do it with every single bad memory you have.

Look Back And Laugh

There are tiny little slip-ups which nobody except you, the player, will notice. There are more major mistakes which fellow musicians will notice (and tease you relentlessly for for a few days) and then there are the galactically knee-gnawingly cringe-worthy cock-ups which destroy one’s self-image and potentially put an end to a career. They can be devastating not because of the mistake itself, but because of the effect it can have on the musician. It is often the loss of self-confidence rather than that one mistake which puts an end to a promising career.

I speak from experience. I have been responsible for some howling mistakes in my musical life and so have many of my musician friends. Something that inevitably happens with the worst of these cataclysmic blunders is that they become stories. Once a mistake becomes a story, you become further disassociated from the memory and the story can become even more entertaining than the piece of music or event that spawned it in the first place! A mistake in a gig becomes a story that can be told for the entertainment of the others gathered in the pub on a Saturday night, a TV chat-show audience or for the education of young music students. Whatever the story is used for, and however toe-curlingly embarrassing it may be, it becomes something potentially useful.

Presuming that the mistake did not result in any deaths, you can re-frame that horrendous experience as something valuable, and something that happened to ‘another you’ in the dim and distant past. By dissociating from the memory, it won’t bother you at all.

The internet is plastered with some gruesome musical mistakes, from some great players too. They survived. So will you. Even if your calamity winds up on youtube for the world to see, it may not be the focus of attention. The ‘mistake’ may be a tiny contribution to the whole clip. Listen to the trumpets in ‘Move On Up’ by Curtis Mayfield or ‘This Will Be’ by Natalie Cole – there are some seriously cracked notes in there, but it hasn’t stopped the tracks from becoming huge hits.

One of the most famous saxophone solos in popular music was played by Raphael Ravenscroft on the Gerry Rafferty hit ‘Baker Street’. I saw Raphael give a workshop and concert and in the Q&A at the end of the day he was asked if there was anything he would have done differently on that iconic recording. “I wish I’d played it in tune” he replied. He would wince every time he heard it. His ‘mistake’ became a story. He told that story many times. People remembered it. People liked it. People liked him for his humility. By the way, he also winced every time he was reminded that he only got £27 for the session, and that the cheque bounced.

I was chatting with a highly accomplished clarinetist about the mistakes that she had made throughout her career and she recalled a time when she had to play the opening solo to Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. It is, after all, one of the most identifiable and famous clarinet solos of all time.

The performance was a live broadcast and I think there may have even been Royalty in the audience. This was a BIG gig. The rehearsal went well, but as the performance got closer her nerves started to jangle. When her big moment came the noise that came out of her clarinet was… well, disastrous. The glissando sounded like a goose laying a football.

As she recounted the story the giggles snowballed into eye-watering laughter for us both. She had dissociated herself from the memory and had reframed the event as ‘an amusing anecdote’. However, it has taken many years for her to reframe the experience in her mind. She suffered inner pangs of toe-curling embarrassment for many years until her perception of the event changed. Perhaps it would have been useful to have re-framed the experience much, much sooner. Can it be done? I think so. Check out the MP3 download at the bottom of the page.

Focus On The Best Bits

I’m sure you have played a great gig, yet come away with the memory of ‘that one mistake’ obliterating the memory of the rest of the performance. Focussing on the mistake seems to be a trait of human nature for many of us.

In many ways our mind is like Google. It searches for things. It is on a quest for information – all you have to do is ask.

On a computer, you will get a different list of results from Google with the following two search-terms:

•How to pass your driving test

•How not to fail your driving test

Each question seems to have an ‘attitude’ attached to it: one positive and one negative. These two searches are chasing the same goal, but Google presents you with two quite different lists of results. Similarly, we will get a whole different batch of answers coming into our minds if we use the wrong mental search term.

Many self-help strategies maintain:

“You Get What You Focus On”. 

We could re-write that to say:

“You Get What You mentally Google”.

Many musicians seem to automatically use the wrong search term when they look back through their memories of a gig. If our mind’s default search term is ‘things that went wrong in the gig’, guess what kind of results start to appear? Just as Google does, it will find results – lots of them! The hypnosis track that you can download here will help to install a much more positive mental attitude and rewrite your default search term. How much better would it be if you mentally Googled: “What was the best stuff that I played tonight?”

There is no point in burying your head in the sand if you did indeed make a mistake that actually mattered. As I have already said: mistakes happen. How you deal with it is up to you.

There is a free downloadable hypnosis MP3 which will help you detatch from the hurt and move on. Click the button at the end of this blog-post to download.

If you are interested in learning more about the Musicians Hypnosis material, simply watch the short video at www.musicianshypnosis.com

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Sam Brown
Sam Brown

Berklee graduate (commercial arranging). Pro drummer, performer working globally since mid 1980s. Author Drum Secrets 1 and 2 and DrumLinear iPhone App. Author Self hypnosis for Musicians, Musicians Hypnosis iPhone/iPad apps. Writer for DRUMMER Magazine and other music publications on hypnosis/NLP for musicians.

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