Whenever any of my piano students gets discouraged from hitting a wrong note or making any type of musical mistake, I tell them, “Don’t worry about that; an “expert” is someone who’s made 1,000 mistakes, but has learned from them all.” Then I smile and say, “Congratulations! You only have 999 more to go!” This usually achieves the desired effect of cheering them up and relaxing them. But I have a larger goal as well: I want to help my students understand their “mistakes” in the context of their long-term development.
While we all know that we “learn from our mistakes,” this can be tough to accept when we hear ourselves play a wrong chord, or have a memory slip during a public performance. We do of course want to fully prepare and play as well as we can. This is what helps us improve and grow musically. At the same time, though, we need to clearly define our overall goals. If we think that great musicians never make mistakes, we’re setting ourselves up for a lifetime of self-criticism and disappointment. I know this for a fact, having worked with many unhappy professional musicians over the years. But I’ve also played with many joyful, satisfied professionals who simply smiled at their mistakes and kept on playing. Having let go of the illusion that they would always be perfect, they learned to accept their “human errors” and enjoy the process of making music for its own sake. Most of the “greats” I’ve played with had this healthy attitude.
I remember the first time I heard the jazz pianist Chick Corea play a wrong note. It was on his “My Spanish Heart” recording. During one of his solos, Chick’s finger must have slipped and he played a note that sounds very wrong. But he continued playing and even kept it on the recording. Hearing this as a young college student, I joyously played that passage over and over. It gave me great heart to know that even Chick Corea made mistakes!
Over the years I’ve refined my definition of what a professional musician is. I used to think that a professional always played perfectly. Now, after decades of hearing myself and my professional colleagues occasionally mess up on the Carnegie Hall stage, in Broadway pits, and in top jazz clubs, I’ve altered my definition: A “professional” is someone who has learned to “go with the flow,” incorporating their imperfections into their performance by keeping the music going. And the remarkable thing is this: if you keep going, the audience usually doesn’t even know you made a mistake! (After years of listening to a particular Keith Jarrett live recording of “Oleo,” I recently realized that Jarrett got lost and skipped a whole ‘A’ section. His bandmates simply went with him!)
So, if you’re discourage because you recently played “badly” during a performance, take heart: all of your musical idols have done the same. They kept going, and you can do it too. Keep practicing, play in public as much as you can, and good luck!
Here’s some musical wisdom from Keith Richards and Thelonious Monk
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