The meaning in mistakes

April 18, 2011, 6:19 AM ·

"Errors are inevitable, but suffering as a result of them is optional."
The Musician’s Way, p. 193

Of all the skills I teach to aspiring performers, some of the toughest ones for them to master © Gunnar Pippel, licensed from Shutterstock.comsurround the emotional aspects of handling on-stage mistakes.

Some students will agonize over slips: a single misshapen note can set off art-crushing aggravation.

In contrast, we veteran musicians stay in the moment when glitches occur – we keep the music flowing and the magic happening.

To help rising performers become adept error-handlers, besides advising them in ways to prepare for concerts and improvise through flubs, I emphasize three fundamental concepts.

1. Errors are not failures
A minor on-stage mistake doesn’t bar listeners from enjoying the larger phrase.

If we fudge a note but keep up the musical intensity, listeners stay immersed in the music and don’t notice the fault.

Even when bigger mishaps occur – say, someone misses an entrance or has a memory lapse – we can still keep the mood alive and show the audience a good time.

Failures, in contrast, result in enduring loss: a driver who causes a fatal car crash fails as a driver and citizen.

In sum, “An on-stage error can’t become a failure unless a musician turns it into one.” (The Musician’s Way, p. 192)

2. Errors are not shameful
Musicians who confuse errors with failures often harbor shame too.

Not only do they view slips as disasters but also conclude that their botched notes prove that they’re untalented.

Of course, mistakes aren’t fun. We might even feel guilty if our blunder alters a special moment in show.

But there’s a world of difference between guilt and shame.

It’s human nature for us to feel guilty when we judge our actions to be inferior; for instance, if we accidentally damage a colleague's instrument.

People who feel shame, though, believe their mistakes indicate that they are inferior.

In truth, every musician, no matter how advanced, makes errors on stage (I certainly commit my share).

As we build up our abilities, we make fewer and smaller errors, and we mask them more gracefully.

Nonetheless, our errors alert us to things we need to learn, so, if we treat them positively, they actually aid our development – many can even lead us to creative breakthroughs.

3. Errors are information
When we rid ourselves of any negative emotional baggage associated with errors, we can then see them for what they are: information.

Errors don’t come with emotional strings unless we strap them on.

Memory slip? Ad-lib through it, and then explore the likely causes in practice. By filling gaps in your memorization procedures, your stage power grows.

I've come to realize that one of my advantages as a performer isn’t just my decades of experience but also that I have no fear of mistakes.

Over the years, I've learned how to prepare for concerts, and I trust in my ability to deliver moving performances no matter what comes up.

I also know that, with intelligent work, any music lover can acquire those same skills.

See pages 190-196 of The Musician’s Way for a comprehensive approach to handling the musical and psychological aspects of performance errors. A version of this article first appeared on The Musician’s Way Blog.

© 2011 Gerald Klickstein
"Oops!" photo © Gunnar Pippel, licensed from


April 18, 2011 at 04:14 PM ·

What sage advice! Every aspiring performer, no matter the medium, should take those words to heart. A performance doesn't have to be perfect to be good, or even great, but all too often we lose sight of that fact.

Thanks for this perspective.


April 18, 2011 at 06:08 PM ·

 I find this to be really great advice. For all the mistakes we musicians naturally make, I'd bet 99% don't even get noticed by the audience. Also this advice is true even in competitions. If I were a judge, I would take the very musical 98% accurate competitor over one who was 100% accurate and played robotically. Never apologize for mistakes. Most of the time, the person you're apologizing to didn't even notice, and if they did, they might have liked it for all you know!

April 18, 2011 at 07:08 PM ·

Not only do 99% of the audience not notice mistakes, especially if the music is played with passion (as it should be), but the 1% who do notice will acknowledge to themselves that they, too, have also been there.

A good example in my own experience was a memory lapse by the soloist in middle of the last movement of Elgar's cello concerto. The conductor (very much on the ball) noticed it at once and held out his score in front of the cellist for a couple of seconds. She immediately recovered and completed the work, one which she had performed many times, without further incident. During the interval I found out that the only people in the orchestra who had noticed what had happened were the first desk of the first violins and the first desk of the cellos (where I was). I also talked to friends who were in the front row of the stalls, right in front of the soloist and conductor, and they hadn't seen or heard what happened.

April 18, 2011 at 10:22 PM ·

"If we fudge a note but keep up the musical intensity, listeners stay immersed in the music and don’t notice the fault."

Ironically, live performance is much more forgiving than recording. The latter lasts forever! Ouch!

April 18, 2011 at 10:42 PM ·

 Great advice!  I have alot of "information" to process.  Luckily, each year there is a little less to process ;)

April 19, 2011 at 11:20 AM ·

Thanks for the lively comments, everyone. Much appreciated! Gerald

April 19, 2011 at 02:01 PM ·

Thanks so much for this! I just finished a quartet recital last night and was covering myself with 'shame' because of a few minor details.... I shall be better in the future!!! :)

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