Mistakes – Five Strategies For Making the Most of Them


in Learning Music

If you play music, you make mistakes. Guaranteed. I know because I’ve studied singing for twenty-plus years.

mistake-technique-growthI also know singers who weren’t given the right guidance about how to productively deal with mistakes and gave up in frustration and discouragement. No matter what instrument you play, I’m writing this post to help you make sure that doesn’t happen to you.

 Strategy #1. Be Realistic—Everyone Makes Mistakes

It’s an obvious point, and yet it bears repeating. We make mistakes, more of them when we are learning something new. If you expect yourself not to make mistakes when learning, practicing, or performing music, you are being unrealistic and getting in your own way.

Even professional musicians who play concerts regularly will often miss a few notes over the course of an evening. For an interesting discussion about pro mistakes, click here.

So, realistically speaking, it’s impossible to totally eliminate mistakes from your music making. That’s why it’s important to learn how to deal with mistakes in a way that supports your progress as a musician, instead of sabotaging it.

Strategy #2. Don’t Push Past Your Current Technical Limits

When you’re afraid of making a mistake, you tense up, throwing good technique out the window, right? With singers, you can often see the neck getting tight, the shoulders coming up, the head thrown up and back, and the chest braced, as they start to think about hitting a high note. On other instruments awkwardness could grow in anticipation of a fast run, a challenging rhythm, a less common key signature, or sudden, big jumps in the pitch.

So what happens with wound-up musicians? The high note or challenging passage usually sounds less good than it could, or is missed altogether. Yet, players who haven’t been taught how to handle mistakes will sometimes respond by “trying harder” and getting “tighter” each time they play the tough spot. This cycle can actually lead to physical injury!

The antidote? Stick to good technique even if it means you can’t make a note or play a passage yet. For singers this can literally mean the sound suddenly cutting out. But if you stay loyal to good technique and accept that it takes time to correctly play stuff that challenges you, you’ll get there one day without doing yourself harm—and your superior musicianship will be obvious to all.

Strategy *3. Kindness to Yourself Creates Great Music

Practicing music? Take it as an opportunity to also practice kindness to yourself.

If you criticize yourself, insult yourself, sigh in exasperation, or feel intensely frustrated with yourself when you make a mistake, all you’re really accomplishing is making practice less fun. If you’re like me, you think music sounds the best when the people playing it are having a great time. Being frustrated or critical of yourself just doesn’t get you there!

An easy litmus test for gauging how to talk to yourself right after a mistake is to think about how you’d talk about the same mistake to your best friend, a little kid, or if you’re a teacher, to your student. How would you support that person in dealing with the mistake, emotionally and musically? Treat yourself just as well!

Strategy #4.  Get Help From Your Mistakes

In my efforts to practice kindness towards myself, I created my “Mistake Mantra.” It goes like this: “I have made a mistake. I accept my mistake. I am willing to learn from my mistake how I can do things better.”

It’s really true—if you respond to a mistake by analyzing it and using the information you get to plan your route to the musical results you want, you will turn that mistake into an ally. Then, every mistake you make will give you a powerful opportunity to discover areas of your music making that need retooling.

If you apply this kind of thinking in every area of your life besides music, you will become a more free and happy person, and you’ll access problem-solving creativity you never knew you had.

Strategy #5: Rehearse Quick Recovery from Mistakes in Performance

“The show must go on!” During performance, your relationship with your audience is front and center. So the key concept for dealing with mistakes in performance is recovery time—it needs to be as fast as possible so that your rapport with your audience isn’t interrupted.

If a singer forgets the words, for example, he or she will just start singing “la la la” with confidence and expressiveness.

To create fast recovery time, concentrate on doing whatever is needed for the music to continue flowing along. To rehearse for performance, play through pieces straight through without stopping for anything, recovering as quickly as you can from any mistake you make.

And don’t sweat a mistake or slower than desired recovery on stage! Perfection doesn’t make you more loveable. If you play your cards right, honest mistakes can even give you a chance to build rapport with your audience.

Sibylle Preuschat is a singer, writer, vocal coach, and consultant to people who want to increase their creative fulfillment. You can hear the beginnings of her “Song Byte” series at www.heartoflifemusic.wordpress.com and learn more about the “Mistake Mantra” at http://www.artwithnaturalintelligence.blogspot.com/search/label/mistakes.


eugene cantera May 22, 2013 at 12:53 pm

Wow – some terrific insight from a passionate life-long learner and one very cool lady.  We’ve known Sibylle for some time and even did a blog post about her as a dlp user.  Here is the link: http://discoverlearnplay.blogspot.com/2012/10/meet-dlp-member-sibylle-p-renaissance.html  Continued success and happy musicking SP – cheers from all of us at dlp!

Sibylle Preuschat May 27, 2013 at 2:17 pm

Thanks Eugene! I was very happy to come across the great work you and your colleagues are doing over at the “Discover, Learn, Play” program.

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