Music isn't about being right. It's about being human.

What To Do When You Make A Mistake

Mistakes are a big fixation in the life of a piano teacher. Students come to piano lessons and play their pieces and sooner or later they play wrong notes, wrong rhythms, wrong articulations, wrong dynamic shapes, and so forth.

Once upon a not-so-long-time ago (let’s say 50 years ago) a particular breed of teacher would respond to a mistake with a physical action – a smack across the knuckles with a ruler, say – with the idea that this would focus the student’s mind on not making mistakes. (It’s more likely that this focussed the student’s mind on not being tortured, but, well, we’ll talk about that another time.)

Even though piano teachers don’t do that now, this idea of not making mistakes still looms large in the learning-to-play-the-piano scene. Students are taught to avoid them. When they do make a mistake the teacher puts a big circle around the note in the music, and a list of these mistakes is compiled for the student to go home and fix.

I’ve written before about the importance of not having lessons (or life) structured around correcting mistakes. But here I’d like to explore the idea from the point of view of the mistake-maker: what should we do when we make a mistake? Here’s where I always start:

1. Think about what makes this mistake a mistake. Did it sound bad? Did it fail to communicate what you wanted to express? Did it feel bad? Did your body get muddled? Did it prevent flow in your performance? (Or was it your worry about the mistake that prevented flow?!)

If you don’t know exactly what it is that you did that was The Mistake then you’ll struggle to not do it again! Just as true in life as it is as a musician.

Looking at it another way…

Most of the mistakes we worry about in piano lessons are mistakes of accuracy rather than mistakes of truth. In some ways it doesn’t matter which kind of mistake it is – we still need to locate the source of the error in order to prevent the mistake occurring again. But while an audience will ignore/forgive/fail to notice mistakes of accuracy, mistakes of truth will destroy a performance.

2. Explore the mistake. Can you repeat the mistake? (If you can repeat the mistake on purpose you are almost certainly not going to make that mistake again.) How does the mistake change the meaning of the music? (If you understand what meaning the mistake communicates you can choose to create a different meaning.) If you make this mistake at this point in the music, what else do you need to adjust to make the music make sense?

This kind of exploration can go on for a long time, and if exploration of this kind is new to you it can feel as if you are ‘mucking around’ or ‘not getting on with it’. Stick with this as long as you can – these explorations build a platform of deep understanding for your future performances. (Ignore that little voice that tells you you would be better off practicing scales. You would not.)

3. Ask yourself if your mistake really was a mistake. Maybe the ‘wrong’ thing you did was what you totally meant to do. When beginner students consistently play a tune with the wrong melodic contour I ask them to sing the tune – more than half the time they are playing the melodic contour to perfectly match the shape in their imagination, and they’re not making a mistake at all! They’re just not playing the same piece I’m looking at in the score. This is a question that is a “locating the source of the error” question, but it can also lead to some further introspection…

If you are committed to your changes to the original musical text you need to be aware of the implications in the cultural context of that work – are you performing in a context where variation, improvisation and recomposition are valued, or will this be seen as sloppiness? Are you committed to your ‘mistake’ because you aren’t all that interested in other people’s point of view?! Are you capable of giving a range of different performances of the same work? A commitment to a mistake can sometimes indicate a high level of rigidity in the thinking of the performer, and this will be more or less troubling/interesting/challenging-to-work-with depending on the age and developmental stage of the performer!

Often our ‘mistakes’ are a commitment to a muddle-headed conception of the work. This is when and where you need to trust your teachers and mentors – they’ve had loads more experience than you have.

So, now, what NOT to do….

1. Don’t stab and stab at different keys on the piano until you stab the right one. By the time you get the “right” note the whole piece will be wrong, you’ll have forgotten where you were and what your point was.

2. Don’t go back and start at the beginning. You can already play that part. Don’t waste your time. By the time you get to where the mistake was you’ll have forgotten what happened and you’ll make the same mistake again. Going back to the start means you are in a cul-de-sac of doom.

3. Don’t write in the names of all the notes. This doesn’t help. It distracts. And it makes you feel righteous when you’ve accomplished absolutely nothing at all. And you still don’t know why you made the mistake in the first place.

4. Don’t think you’ve sorted it out as soon as you’ve played the section correctly once. Tomorrow you’ll come back and make the same mistake, because all your practice has been practicing the mistake, and only 1.3 seconds of your practice was when you played it right.

Practice is fundamentally NOT about repetition and discipline – it’s fundamentally about listening and reflecting and noticing and exploring. Take your thinking away from an accuracy = perfection model. Music isn’t about being right, it’s about being human.

And remember, if you’re not making mistakes you’re not learning anything. Every single time you make a mistake you have the chance to become someone even more fabulous than you’ve ever been before – so celebrate your mistakes; they remind you you’re alive.




19 thoughts on “What To Do When You Make A Mistake

  1. For me the most important distinction to make is between the mistake you’re aware of and the one you’re not. (If I’m aware I made a mistake, I’m halfway there to correcting it. If I’m not aware of the mistake, I need assistance.) The title of your post – “What to do…” immediately made me think of the tradition that exists in English church choir training: if a child makes a mistake during rehearsal, he or she quickly pops a hand in the air and down again. The conductor knows the child is aware of the mistake and that there’s no need to stop the whole choir to fix it. (In concerts the kiddies occasionally forget they’re performing and you’ll see a fleeting raising of a hand in the air! Very cute.) I think this is a fabulous strategy and I’ve often wondered whether it could be translated into instrumental training through some other quick, nonintrusive physical gesture. A thought.

  2. On a completely different point, I do wonder about this theory: «When beginner students consistently play a tune with the wrong melodic contour I ask them to sing the tune – more than half the time they are playing the melodic contour to perfectly match the shape in their imagination, and they’re not making a mistake at all!»

    If we assume that most beginners are unlikely to be very accurate sightsinger/readers, then what’s more likely is that they’ve formed an aural memory (which is what they then sing) based on the wrong notes that they’ve been playing. In other words, the imagination (vocalisation) is matching what they’re playing, not the other way around.

    • Interesting… I think the formation of the ‘wrong’ aural memory happens *alongside* the inaccurate reading. At beginner stages students aren’t reading note names, they’re reading contours (well, the way I teach, anyway) so there’s actually a misalignment of contour in the imagination/voice as compared to the page (which the student is only just being introduced to in any case). The score being learned from is in the inner ear…. How it got there would need some degree of forensic analysis. 🙂

  3. The “explore the mistake” suggestion could well form part of an improvisation lesson, as that’s pretty much the thinking approach to creative music making.. also to composing. But also to achieve flow and expression in a notated work, learning to forge ahead in performance when a mistake occurs is truly one of the hardest skills to learn. Beethoven said to one of his pupils (pretty sure it was Czerni) to play a mistake was insignificant but to play without passion inexcusable! I remember feeling a huge since of relief when I read that so long ago!

  4. Hey Elissa,

    Thanks for writing this post. As a piano teacher myself, I tend to be very frustrated with students who make mistakes. And not only that, sometimes I thought if I am the one doing the teaching wrong, or they just don’t get it. Your article has given me a fresh insight on the way to look at the mistake. Thanks! 🙂

  5. “Practice is fundamentally NOT about repetition and discipline – it’s fundamentally about listening and reflecting and noticing and exploring. Take your thinking away from an accuracy = perfection model. Music isn’t about being right, it’s about being human.”

    I’ve posed your comment above to the Saxophonists group on Facebook. We are mostly male and largely professional (tho I no longer am). Men and professionals in any field focus have our share of unspoken assumptions that often run directly against what you say. But I see much wisdom and acceptance in it.

    • What a profound insight (and one I’ve never considered) – that the repetition+discipline concept might stem from a gendered position… Hmm – this will be food for thought for me for days!!

  6. Further thoughts: One saxophonist FBF reminds me that certain repertoire in any genre, for any instrument, requires extreme discipline in practice. I think that with that need for extreme discipline comes the need for an extreme mental stance that goes with it. That may be what you’re passing over – the times and situations when the “ruler” had better be kept in reach and used.

    Playing virtuosic music with high technical demands is not necessarily a natural, normal thing for humans to be doing, and so it requires something of an unnatural attitude – where you have to be ready every day to put results before your mental and emotional wellbeing for an hour or two or three.

    This may be something males understand better than females. We are raised to abandon self-care for a purpose, and ultimately, that becomes our measure as human beings. (I am not much of a man in that regard, but I know the rules.)

    • I think that’s simply a framing issue. You can call it “extreme discipline” or you can call it “extreme empathy” or you can call it “extreme connection” and you are really talking about the same thing. But the decision to frame as discipline rather than connection speaks volumes as to the inter- and intra-personal intent of the musician….

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