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Mistakes – A Valuable Experience.

In this post:

  • Reframing a memory
  • The ‘safety nets’ you already have
  • That memory that KEEPS coming back to haunt you… and how to deal with it.
  • There WILL be a positive side (unless anybody died).
  • Free hypnosis mp3 to set you free 🙂

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 centre 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 had wound up 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? We will never know. 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.

So: When is the best time to make a mistake? 

Answer: When it does not really matter.

Another question:
Do different genres of music require a different mindset when it comes to dealing with mistakes?

Answer: Yes, although there are some principles which seem to be universal regardless of the style of music you play.

A pupil came to me one day in a very distressed state. The school wind band concert at the weekend had been going very well until he turned over two pages of the music by accident and was totally lost for the rest of the piece. He fumbled through, but the experience knocked his confidence and from then on loads of other little slip-ups started to happen. He mis-counted his rests, he missed the DS al Coda. He was not having a good day!

My first question to him was: “Did anybody die?”

Unsurprisingly that question very quickly re-framed the situation for him. Well, no, as far as we knew, by the complete absence of ambulances and paramedics on site, there had been no fatalities that day… none that could have been attributed to him turning over two pages instead of one, anyway. 

I explained that as professional players we all have to develop a ‘safety net’. We all learn to draw upon our lifetime’s experience of music to be able to ‘fly blind’ once in a while.


The ‘safety net’ idea is simply a metaphor. The more you dig into this metaphor, and the more you acknowledge the ones that you’ve already unwittingly developed, the more powerfully they impact upon you as a musician. A trapeze artist uses a real safety-net and therefore is happy to throw him or herself around thirty feet above the ground knowing that they are not going to die if they miss-time a leap. Now contemplate the parallels in this metaphor as applied to performing music – they are very comforting thoughts, you’ll find. We just need to realize that there are already some safety nets there for us, and that we can build some extra ones by using our imagination.

Music is made up of patterns. There are different sets of patterns depending upon the style, genre and instrument. There is undoubtedly a set of patterns in the classical violinist’s repertoire which we could call ‘Mozart licks’. If this were not the case a piece of Mozart would not sound like a piece of Mozart. If a new manuscript were discovered down the back of one of Wolfgang’s old sofas, it would be bound to still sound like classic Mozart when it was played because it comes from the same patterns and stylistic idioms. In the same way, there are idiomatic drum patterns and fills, blues licks on the guitar and Coltrane-esque three tonic systems for saxophonists. The more of these you know on your instrument and in your style, the safer your safety net will be and the higher you can safely fly.

Busking the drum part for an Andrew Lloyd-Weber medley in a school wind band is very different from playing violin in a Mozart symphony. In the classical world the pressure is undeniably higher because the notes are considered sacred – you cannot mess with them in the same way you can with Mustang Sally at a wedding gig. Nonetheless, if you are a violinist and have played a lot of Mozart in your life, then there will be a fair amount of experience in your database which you can draw upon if the worst comes to the worst (and I really do mean the worst. This is for really dire crash-and-burn train-wreck situations in the classical world).

If improvising your way out of a tricky situation with some Mozart licks is not an option there will always be another get-out plan which will probably not result in any deaths. You could read the music of the person sitting next to you – no-one would notice (probably). You could mime. You could even stop the show and make an announcement to the audience and start the piece again. I’ve seen this happen a few times and on every occasion the audience has been behind the musician one hundred percent. Nobody dies.

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 considerably 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 in Bristol and not at The Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles is extremely comforting and getting things in perspective is always a wise strategy. Knowing this will not stop you from striving to play at your very best. Getting some perspective can give you freedom to play even better.

Dealing With Mistakes

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’ve acknowledged something as being ‘a mistake’ it is, by its very nature, a historical event. It is in the past. It’s gone. 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. As I’ve already suggested, 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’. 

Being able to make mistakes and ‘just let them go’ is a vital skill for any performer. Knowing that you can bluff your way out of a sticky musical situation gives you an incredible confidence-boost because you have permission to fail. When Louis Armstrong forgot his lyrics his ‘failure’ became a triumph because he started ‘scat’ singing. Mistakes and failures are not necessarily bad if you can find a way to reframe them.

There is an old adage that: ‘there is no such thing as failure, only feedback’. Some people also say that a mistake is just an ‘unintentional outcome’  that you were not expecting. Yes, there are many ways of re-framing those little things that don’t quite turn out the way we’d planned. 

How to ditch a recurrent memory of your epic fail.

What can we do to lessen the awful feelings that we associate with our greatest blunders? Well, 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. 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. 

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, 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. 

Look Back And Laugh

I have been responsible for some howling mistakes in my musical life and so have many of my musician friends. Something that can happen with the worst of these cataclysmic blunders is that they become stories. Once a mistake becomes a story, it becomes another step removed from reality and ironically can become even more entertaining than the piece of music or event that spawned it in the first place.

A gig that would be long forgotten lives on and 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

Some people find it hard to detach from a memory and view it in a dissociated way. If you can re-frame that horrendous experience as something valuable, and something that happened to ‘another you’ in the dim and distant past, then it won’t bother you at all. 

Tommy Cooper, the great comedian, had a disastrous experience on stage when he was about sixteen. He was doing a magic act and everything went wrong. People laughed. He went on to use the whole idea of ‘failed magic tricks’ as the basis for his whole career as an entertainer. That’s a seriously good re-frame.

The internet is plastered with musicians making mistakes. 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. The musician noticed it, we can presume the other musicians in the ensemble noticed it, some of the cognoscenti in the audience may have noticed but a great many will not have done. To some people you ‘got away with it’.

When I teach I find pupils have a very annoying habit of stopping the moment they play a ‘wrong’ note. I joke with them that because I’ve had a long day ‘I may have been daydreaming about the football while they played and they may have been able to get away with that missed accidental’ but the fact that they had abruptly stopped AFFIRMED that they had made a mistake and immediately drew my attention to it.

I tell the student that their challenge is to try to ‘get away with it’. Let the mistake go ‘under the teacher’s radar’. Tell them to KEEP PLAYING and let the mistake go like dropping a stone down a well. It’s gone. You cannot get it back. The mistake is history. You are not a Time Lord capable of time-travel.

Knowing that you can get away with a mistake paradoxically makes you make fewer mistakes! You have developed a mental safety net. How many times does an acrobat actually NEED a safety net? It is so reassuring just knowing that it is there is enough to allow them to ‘fly’.

How a mistake can live on… in a GOOD way.

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 – a story that he enjoyed telling. His sax solo had grown another, somewhat unexpected yet valuable branch of entertainment. His ‘mistake’ didn’t stop ‘Baker Street’ from becoming a huge hit. Raphael told that story many times. People remembered the story. 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.

There are tiny little slip-ups which nobody will notice except yourself. There are more major mistakes which fellow musicians will notice (and tease you relentlessly about 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 musicians own self-esteem and confidence. 

I was chatting with a highly accomplished clarinetist about the mistakes that she had made throughout their 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 her giggles snowballed into eye-watering laughter for us all. She had dissociated herself from the memory and had reframed the event as ‘an amusing anecdote that she can use at social gatherings’. 

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.

Some people seem to be born with the strength of character to reframe instantly and become impervious to embarrassment. To them it is water off a duck’s back. We might say they are thick-skinned. 

Actually, it’s a mental technique that they have taught themselves to do through a series of hard knocks. They have learnt how to re-frame naturally. If some people can do this as easily as blinking, then it is something that the rest of us can learn. 

Think about a memory that you don’t enjoy re-living. Think about a time when you were embarrassed – a memory that makes you wince inside every time you revisit this memory. 

If you struggle to find a memory that makes your toes curl then congratulations! You have either led a charmed life or you have already developed a mental strategy for dealing with these things. The MP3 track below is for you to use when you have a bad memory that haunts you, something that keeps popping into your mind when you really wish it wouldn’t. After using this technique your unconscious will help you to reframe the experience and it will no longer have such a strong hold over you. You’ll sleep better too, I expect.

So if there’s a memory that you think might be holding you back – and it needn’t be a musical thing either, by the way – give the mp3 a spin a few times and see how you feel.

Bad Memory Eliminator Hypnosis from www.MusiciansHypnosis.com

This material is based on my online course: ‘The Pre-Gig Pep-Talk’ – follow the link in the menu. There’s plenty more transformative stuff there waiting for you – everything from Sight-Reading to Rhythmic Awareness and from Stage Fright to Creativity. Watch the intro video and then check out all the free stuff too. Exciting times ahead 🙂

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Do NOT use any of the hypnosis material whilst driving or operating machinery.
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