Fear of mistakes can be a real killer. A buzz killer, that is. A groove killer; vibe killer. Is a mistake an error or just a miss take? Is a wrong note really wrong?
I think that mistakes can more accurately be described as unintentional sounds (or silences). The trouble with miss takes and unintentional sounds isn’t really with the event itself, it’s the way we react to it. Instead of simply hearing it we tend to judge it. When we get into labeling that note as an error we start wrestling with it, talking in our heads about what we meant to do or what the audience thinks (because they surely noticed it) or just wincing to let everyone know that we caught it, too. “I may have made a mistake but I’m smart enough to know it. I’m no idiot!” But maybe we are acting like an idiot. It’s like the famous quote: “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture”. Every time we get caught up by a mistake, we’re dancing about architecture. We’re dictating to ourselves in our heads about music that we have already played. We’re not listening anymore and we’re not really playing, either. We’re battling ourselves instead of playing for our audience. When we go on about mistakes like this we’re actually not doing what we think we’re doing, that is we’re not learning from it. We’re not even really experiencing this “mistake”. We’re thinking about it, so we never simply hear it.
What if there was a different approach, like whenever mistakes happen to just simply hear the mistake. You don’t need to do anything about it. It’s already done. It’s over. But the next notes have not been played yet. When we fuss at ourselves we’re just trying to avoid the pain we associate with that unintended sound. If you actually hear it, things change. One experience of it is enough. There’s no need to dwell on it. You’ve already done the job. It is possible to simply hear that mistake and then move on without doing anything about it. The event, itself, is enough to learn from. We don’t need to add insult to injury. If we are brave enough to hear what we actually did and not do anything about it, if we just feel the sting, the energy of the embarrassment gets burned up in a few seconds. It’s just a small sting.
Sometimes a mistake will even point us in a new direction. Mistakes are full of good ideas, actually. Many scientific discoveries have been made because of mistakes in the laboratory. Penicillin, microwave ovens, Coca Cola, and the pacemaker were all discovered by accident. A scientist who is trying to solve one problem makes a mistake which ends up being used to solve a different problem because they were able to see it on its own terms, free from the interpretation of “mistake”. History is full of fortunate accidents. It’s all in whether or not we can directly relate to it, to see it or hear it in its own right without judgment. Then we can move on, or even incorporate it, follow it and develop it.
When you are performing your audience is following what you do. If you follow your mistakes they will too. If you let them go your audience will too. If you acknowledge the mistake by simply hearing it and feeling that small sting, which takes a fraction of a second, you can return to playing great music and your audience will return listening to the great music you’re playing.
Let’s welcome “mistakes” and see what happens:
- Sit or stand upright, look out in front of you with a diffused gaze and feel the weight of your body. Take 3 deep breaths, feeling a stretch in your torso on each in-breath and relaxing out with each out-breath. Rotate your shoulders and relax. Take 3-4 minutes to do this. (more on this here)
- Play (or sing) a note.
- Randomly play another, without strategy. Don’t “try” to get anything right or wrong. Just hear what it sounds like, even if you completely blow it.
- Let notes ring against each other creating random harmonies and triads (if your instrument can)
- Play without tempo or a fixed rhythm.
- Listen for phrases to appear. Is there a quality in the sequence of notes, like something be expressed, or is it just senseless? Is senseless a quality?
- Listen for the end to present itself. I promise you, it will. You’ll hear it.
- Feel each sound. Hear it in your body.
- How does each sound affect your body?
- Where does each sound affect your body?
Listen very closely to every sound you make, intentional or not, and hear without any evaluation, just hear what things sound like. Unintentional sounds have just as much potential for expression as any other part of music. All sounds are valid. Certain ones may not have our intent, but they are valid because they each have their own quality that we can hear, experience and explore.
When you let go of trying to control every sound, you may feel a sense of fragility, a twinge of fear, like you’re walking out onto a frozen lake in early spring. You don’t need to do anything about that either. You’re alone in your practice room, right? Go ahead and see if you can feel a little exposed, like you’re naked, like you’re actually on stage. When we’re exposed to the fact that we can’t control everything, then we’re actually in the moment. We’re in a friendlier environment, much more likely to be feeling what we’re playing, and less likely just to be going through the motions, hamming it up, or negatively comparing our playing to the ideal performance in our heads. The truth is, we are exposed and when we feel it, that’s when there’s a possibility of the whole thing turning into vibrant music.
So you welcome that feeling of fragility, that feeling of exposure because it’s nothing to be freaked out by. It’s actually good. When you drop your guard and really listen to what you play and take a chance by not being a jerk to yourself for your mistakes, you’re much more genuine person and the audience can feel that. You can afford to really look at the audience, feel their energy and tailor your performance to them. You’re available to them because you’re no longer marking your own score card. And when an audience witnesses a genuine person truly hearing and feeling sound, they get lured in to truly hear and feel sound, themselves. That communicates in a way that a cautious, slick, “error-free”, laminated “show” cannot. So let things come apart a little bit. Feel the fresh air and be with it. Yes, it’s a little slippery, but when you let yourself feel the fact that you’re not able to completely control things, your audience will sense that you’re also not trying to manipulate them, and then you have created the opportunity for them to open up to you and recognize themselves in you.
I’ve developed a daily music warm-up into a tool that uses awareness of body and sound to cut through mental distraction and right into the pure experience of music making. This website is a forum to spread this practice and discuss it among those who practice it and those who are simply interested in the subject. Check in frequently for video and audio guided practices, links to resources, community discussion and support and many other offerings. Seeyasoon!