Mistakes Are Information, Not Failures
"Mistakes are gold!"
That's something that Nathan Cole said in one of the videos for his Violympic Trials, the free event last week in which several thousand violinists across this globe signed on for the challenge of learning Nathan's technique-laden Violympic Theme, all in the course of a week.
After the "mistakes are gold" comment, a viewer followed up with the comment, "Then I'm RICH!" -- which inspired a flurry of laughing emojis.
It's kind of funny, the idea of mistakes as "gold." Cute, right? And a little ironic.
But this idea is not just a nicety, like a teacher papering over the unpleasantness, or a parental kiss that will make the boo-boo go away. It's related to something that I heard violinist and pedagogue Mimi Zweig say a year ago in a master class at the American String Teacher's Association Conference: "Mistakes are neither good nor bad, they are just information."
It can be difficult to see mistakes in that light. Mistakes can make you want to hide, whether those mistakes happened on the violin, in the classroom, in a social situation or on a work project. Even small mistakes can make a person feel like Harry Potter's Dobby, the house elf who bangs his head against the wall, wailing "Bad Dobby!" every time he makes a real or perceived error in life.
It's pretty obvious that Dobby's reaction does not help anyone, especially Dobby. Yet this funny little fictional character illustrates a very human tendency to rush to self-judgment, to turn what everyone else can see as a small blunder into a huge personal failing.
Anyone who stretches their limits and takes on major goals will make mistakes along the way. For example, taking on the challenge of fast notes, double-stops, fingered octaves, high positions, arpeggios -- certainly invites the likelihood of making mistakes.
In order to see mistakes as "information," it's important to first eliminate the personal judgment factor, ie. "I made a mistake. That is bad. I am bad." Instead, look at a mistake with a cool head, open mind and sense of curiosity: "I made a mistake. What happened?"
And when you ask, "What happened?", this is where you can mine the gold from your mistakes. But it will require patience and honesty. You'll have to dig deeper than, "Ooops, I played it wrong, now I'll play it right."
Here is a step-by-step guide to turning a mistake into "gold":
- Acknowledge the mistake. If you gloss over mistakes, they will never be fixed. Use your ear and make note of those places that do not sound the way you would like. Another strategy: record yourself and listen to a play-back to determine places that need to be addressed.
- Identify where the mistake happened. Find the mistake in your music. What came before, what came afterwards? Is it a recurring mistake?
- Identify what happened. Was it out of tune? Out of time? Scratchy? Too loud or too soft? Did you miss a shift? Did you play one note four times instead of once because you were correcting the intonation? Was your spiccato bowing not bouncing? Sometimes the mistake is not actually what you think it is. For example, the muddled passage might come down to imprecise string crossings rather than fingers that are out of place. So which is it?
- Figure out what caused the mistake. This is a step many people skip, but doing this can often prove the best way to eliminate the mistake permanently. Was the mistake caused by a tricky bowing? A page-turn? A note that you mis-read? A difficult fingering? An awkward string crossing? A combination of two tricky things that are hard to do at once? If possible, put it into words: "I missed this shift because it happens with a string-crossing," or "Even though this is memorized, this is the place where there was a page turn and I'm still stopping there," or "I keep thinking this is a high two when it's a low two," or "The only way to get this fourth finger in the right place is to change my hand position, and I'm not doing that," or "Because of the passage before, I'm in the wrong part of the bow for it to bounce."
- Plan exactly what you need to do, to play the passage correctly the very next time you play it. Say it to yourself before you play it to yourself - putting it into words helps make it permanent in your mind. Using the examples above, "I need to stop before the string crossing, shift first, then cross strings, then play the note," or "I need to play a low two, right next to the one," or "I need to change my hand position in preparation to play the fourth finger," or "During the four notes before the spiccato passage, I need to work my way toward the part of the bow where it will bounce."
- Play it once, correctly. Start with this modest goal, and take it slow. Break it down as much as you need, to make it 100 percent correct in terms of landing every finger, every shift, every string crossing, every correct bowing, every correct rhythm. If you've slowed down the tempo, keep the rhythms proportional. If your plan for playing it correctly does not work, tweak it until it does. Once you have played it correctly, make a mental note of what you did to make it happen, so that you can replicate it.
- Repeat the passage correctly, many times. Get it up to speed, if you had slowed it down. Play it right until you can't play it wrong!
Turning mistakes into "gold" actually requires a lot of work and attention, but you may then be able to say, "I'm RICH!" -- and really mean it!
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