Mistakes: When do we break out the hammer and Nails?

Sometimes we don’t perform as well as we either expect to or want to. We might have put in the time working on the material but for some reason the neurons aren’t making the connections and things just don’t mesh. This happens when we practice, rehearse and perform; it’s part of being a musician and really part of being human. We make mistakes, sometimes they just happen while other times it’s because we weren’t prepared. Whatever the cause it is up to us to fix the issue, particularly when it is because we weren’t prepared. However, one of the keys to turning the corner on this is to not over-castigate ourselves for our errors. After all, our performance is generally judged holistically, whether it is over time or the course of the performance itself. Very few folks in the audience run a tally on how many errors we made and I, for one, prefer to hear a musically performed piece with a glitch or two over a sterile note accurate one any day.

That being said, I have myself been guilty of being overly self-critical on more than a few occasions, and I have come to the conclusion that there really is no plus side to that approach. Yes, we do need to critique our own performances in order to improve, but we also need to give ourselves credit for the wins as well, and often if we’re consistently hypercritical we run the risk of losing our love for the entire process. Why do it, if all that it leads to is misery? It can also degrade our performances because when we become too focused on either the mistakes we’ve made or avoiding making another we can become overly cautious and tentative during our performances. We become focused on the notes, not the music which can also lead to a cascading effect, compounding the initial error with further flubs.

There does need to be a balance. If we are making mistakes because we didn’t put in the time and effort to learn the piece then we should give ourselves a good tongue lashing, but one should be enough; then get to work on it. We should know what to do to fix the problem(s), so do what is necessary. Being unprepared is one of the areas where we shouldn’t cut ourselves much in the way of slack, particularly if it is a consistent state of unpreparedness.  If things during one week snowball and we find ourselves struggling to make everything work, then ok, that’s a bad week. Make note of it and move on. But when we end up being unprepared on a regular basis, we need to give ourselves a good kick. Consistent unpreparedness is detrimental to performance practice and shows a certain amount of inconsideration for the folks we work with and perform for.

Chronic unpreparedness is different from most scenarios we face as musicians. One of the off-shoots of making mistakes sometimes takes the form of obsessive fixation. We’ve all experienced the case where we simply have a bad day, making errors on parts we know and haven’t had any difficulty with before, so we immediately want to fix them, and then they happen again, and again, and again. What we really need to do, especially in a rehearsal situation, is move on to something else and revisit it either later during the same rehearsal or at the next rehearsal. But instead of simply letting it go, we tend to instead fixate on it to the point where we actually reinforce the mistakes rather than fix the issue. We actually end up practicing the mistake, which then creates a new problem. The best thing to do is stop before this happens. Move on and deal with something else.

Focusing on our mistakes can also end up creating performance blocks when we place too much attention on either avoiding the mistakes or on the mistakes we’ve already made. This type of focus is a prime contributor to stage fright. We build up so much stress over whether or not we’re going to make a mistake, or mistakes, that our anxiety takes over and increases the likelihood of exactly what we fear happening to occur. It can also lead to shaky hands and memory loss, simply because we are focusing on negative outcomes, which creates tension, rather than the whole picture. When it comes down to making and performing music tension is the enemy. It inhibits the fluidity of our physical movements and impacts our rationality, as well as interfering with our emotional sense of balance, all of which negatively impacts our ability to perform at our best capacity. Focusing on the mistakes builds tension.

Finally, our focusing on the mistakes in our performances robs the audience of the positive experience they are having. Most of the time a large portion of the audience, if not most of it, isn’t going to notice if we missed one note. They are happy with the performance, and having enjoyed it will want to voice their appreciation either through applause, dancing (if it is the type of venue that welcomes this), or even talking with us after the performance. When we focus on our mistakes we will often be dissatisfied with our performances, and this frequently comes across in our bows, facial expressions, or during meet and greets after the performance. This type of open self-criticism has a negative effect on our audience’s experience and we owe it to them to not indulge in it. If we are upset with ourselves, at least take it home and deal with it there, and even if we aren’t prone to be overly self-critical there will still be times when we do feel this way. Remember, healthy self-criticism serves the purpose of fixing errors and problems. It is by nature designed to be helpful, not destructive. If we’re breaking out the hammer and nails it should be to constructively build something, not to crucify ourselves.


One thought on “Mistakes: When do we break out the hammer and Nails?

  1. This is an interesting post to me. A few years ago, there was a big uproar over the extreme practice regimen that Amy Chua, the infamous “Tiger Mom”, forced her two daughters to undergo, on top of academic and other extracurricular activities. My wife and I talked about it quite a bit, because we were planning to have our first child and were looking at differences with how we’d each been reared, and how our own cultures affected the way that our families brought up children (we’re both American, but my parents are Indian, from Trinidad, and she and her family are Filipino). One thing we spoke about quite a bit was musical education and ability, and your advice completely flies in the face of what Chua put her daughters through. Your method is also what I consider the more realistic and rational way to go about practicing when it comes to not reinforcing mistakes. Its more measured and natural.

    Also, I saw that movie, Whiplash, recently. It was a bit insane, but very entertaining. The practice regimen that the main character forced himself through also seemed damaging to me, although I did note that a lot of the high-speed drills he was doing were really common in extreme metal and didn’t seem to require the single-minded focus that he applied to learn them. Of course, its a dramatization. But, its also an interesting contrast to what you say about taking a step back to avoid reinforcing mistakes.


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