Love Your Mistakes

Mistakes, errors, hitches and problems are a part of making music. And believe it or not, they are necessary to your growth as a musician. Let’s investigate some ways of looking at “mistakes” that ultimately help your playing, even if a particular mistake seems to be dragging you down.

First of all, mistakes have a special place in my heart, because I am a mistake. I don’t want to get too personal, here, but my birth was not planned by the people who made me. I wasn’t supposed to be conceived. I wasn’t supposed to happen. But I did, and most people are pretty happy how this “mistake” turned out.

But what about mistakes in music? How are we supposed to look at them in a way that helps our playing? Let me ask you this: have you ever made a mistake that introduced a new sound to you? Haven’t there been times when you wanted to play a particular chord but ended up playing another, and the unexpected sound made you say, “Oh, wow! That was cool! Let’s do that again!”

I know you’ve experienced this, if you’ve been playing for any length of time. When you make such cool sounds from so-called “mistakes,” you begin to appreciate them. In fact, you begin to see that mistakes deserve a more accurate, positive name. Maybe we ought to call mistakes “alternatives,” or “options.” Instead of saying, “Darn. Why do I keep making the mistake of playing that C#m in stead of the D major,” you might ask, “What would happen if I continued pursuing this alternative? What new sounds could I get if I followed this unexpected option?”

This is not easy at first. Most of us have been conditioned to see mistakes as bad, or as something that has to be corrected or rectified immediately. We see mistakes as mental cockroaches, to be stamped out or destroyed, instead of seeing them as the rays of insight and avenues for growth they really are.

If you’re hard at work on a song you love, and you continue to make a mistake during a particular part each time you play it, it’s hard to be understanding and calm toward that mistake. Yet, you need to be, if you want to play that song well. You need to take a deep breath the next time your hit a #9 instead of a natural 9, and say, “Okay, Mr. Mistake. I acknowledge your presence. I see that you want me to pay attention to you. What is it that you want me to play?” Then, spend just a bit of time exploring the path that the mistake/option is introducing you to. You may discover that, after you’ve done this with sincerity, the mistake disappears.

Mistakes in Transcription

Mistakes can be highly valuable when you’re doing transcription. I once worked on a transcription program, which had a CD of about 10 jazz tunes to transcribe, and sheet music for those tunes. I listened to the CD, doing the best transcription I could of each song, listening to every note.

After I completed each song I would compare my transcribed notation with the sheet music. The problem wasn’t my accuracy. I did pretty well, hitting 85% and up in relation to the sheet music. The problem was that I was getting too stressed out over that 15% of “mistakes.” It was getting to the point that I no longer wanted to transcribe, so I wouldn’t have to face seeing these mistakes.

That’s not productive. And it sure as sheet cake was not fostering a positive psychological environment to learn in. I needed to adopt a new attitude, and I did. I adopted the attitude that my mistakes were simply alternate ways of creating music that sounded good. Comparing my version of the music with the “actual” sheet music was instructive, but not absolutely critical for learning music. The critical part was turning my mistakes into music, and creating many options that were similar to — or better — than the sounds I was hearing in the tune I was transcribing. Today, transcribing music is a pleasure for me.

It’s critical to your success in music that you take a more objective, yet sympathetic, view of your mistakes. To help you acquire this perspective, I want to offer the following resources:

The Guitar Noise article Playing the Guitar while Singing by Charron. Charron says, “Let’s face it: everyone makes mistakes live, even the best.”

Learn how Coca-Cola, Post-it notes and other things we value in this loony society were the results of mistakes – Google “The Greatest Mistakes of All Time.”

Here’s another way of looking for inspiration about mistakes while you’re surfing the Web: enter this exact search term in the search engine: “title:inventions and text:mistake” You’ll find a bunch of sites that will tell you about inventions that were the results of mistakes.

I want to wrap up this mistake business with a final thought: life itself is the result of a series of mistakes. Evolution theory tells us that species become adapted to their environment in part because of genetic mistakes to organisms of that species. I don’t want to ruffle anyone’s religious feathers. I just want you to have a more understanding perspective of your musical mistakes.

Remember: Mistakes, errors, hitches and problems are a part of living, learning and making music. How you view them — especially what you call them and how you react to them — impacts your progress as a guitarist.