Afraid of Making Mistakes

July 25, 2012 at 01:12 AM · Not sure what category this should be under...

I'm a 17 year old violinist, on the edge of becoming a perfectionist. I've gotten to the point that I beat myself up inside for hitting notes out of tune, or making a stupid face while I play. It's not other people that phase me when I play; I phase myself.

I cherish when people trust me, and I'm terrified that, if I mess up, I'll lose that trust. It's gotten to the point that I'm messing up because I'm afraid of messing up.

My role model in life and music told me, "I know exactly what you mean; We're our worst critics". She's exactly right; I look over my whole performance, and can tell you every note I hit out of tune, every shift I missed, and every moment of passion I didn't fulfill. But, when I do this, I knock my confidence down and thus play worse than I did the last time. And then it repeats, looking at all the mistakes.

How can I stop this cycle?

Replies (34)

July 25, 2012 at 04:30 AM · It won't be easy, but you might consider dwelling on what went right in your performance. You will actually need to re-program your thought process towards the positive side of things, and it may take a moment or two.

It's "OK" to strive for perfection as long as you realize you will never achieve it. No one is perfect. Your mentor could really help by coaching you to your maximum potential through positive re-enforcement.

At 17 you should give yourself a break. You have many many years a head of you. Don't spend the early ones picking apart the little stuff. You'll have plenty of time for that later. Enjoy the successes and acknowledge the things that need work, but don't stress about them.

July 25, 2012 at 06:58 AM · Before going on stage at a big chamber music festival, one of the artist-faculty playing with us told me, "I never feel comfortable until I make my first big mistake...then everything's all right!" :)

His performances were always thrilling, regardless of the minor issues that crept up in live concerts.

July 25, 2012 at 08:19 AM · There is no easy answer to your problem. The first step, which it seems you have already taken is to recognize that it is a problem.

A very wise teacher once said that the definition of good practice is accomplishing the most in the least amount of time...(and this is the most important part): without frustration. Just remember that this problem is not you, it is your enemy which is frustration.

July 25, 2012 at 08:37 AM · Improve your technics. Play more exercises, scales and etudes. Perhaps then you will make less mistakes and not be so frustrated. Good luck!

July 25, 2012 at 11:27 AM · John, that is a really good answer. And its not from left field, and I'm not being sarcastic.

July 25, 2012 at 11:47 AM · Unfortunately, there is no 'like' button in as in Facebook. Otherwise, I would have liked John's comment.

July 25, 2012 at 12:13 PM · John C's post is spot-on.

My first voice teacher got on my case, when I got visibly upset with mistakes. She got in my face and said "you can't help making mistakes. You CAN help losing your poise." Keeping your cool and recovering is an important skill. You can practice being poised, as well as learning the notes.

Besides, kicking yourself over a mistake won't FIX the problem. Focused problem-solving will go much further. If you develop the habit of stopping to have a rant on every mistake, it will be disruptive in an ensemble (incl. orchestral) setting.

If you play because you enjoy it, why not focus on the enjoyment? If you make a mistake, simply put a sticky tab there, as something to remember to work on. But be sure to come back and work it through. That part of the music may turn out out to be your strongest passage!

Read the Inner Game of Music.

Or, you could read the improvisation thread going on now, and just say you were doing an improv. :-)

July 25, 2012 at 12:27 PM · I think the best way to stop worrying (one of my problems too) is to go out and make mistakes on purpose. Make it a game if you like - spot the intentional mistake.

I may have posted this before but I heard the great classical guitarist, Segovia, play three times - the last one not long before his death. I sat about 6 feet from his chair and when I focused on his playing I discovered that he was making mistakes all the time - but he made them beutifully.

Whats often lost in the uber competetive world of classical music (and violin at or near the top of that catagory) is that to be pleasing to the ear and mind, music is supposed to be alive - the soul of both the composer and the performer and also the moment are supposed to be present. Sure there are going to be bean counters that cynically harp on errors - but they are of such minor interest if the music itself was successful. I'd far more hear a captivating performance with a few errors than a robotic one that was technically perfect.

I guess what I'm saying was just said above - when you perform focus on the message not the medium. The latter will be as it will be - but the former depends on your engagement.

July 25, 2012 at 02:01 PM · Great posts, all.

I've said this before, but as a psychologist, I think (and hope) it may be helpful to separate the idea of what you strive for from the idea of how you evaluate yourself as a violinist (indeed, as a person).

- To STRIVE for perfection is a wonderful goal. Without it, we may not reach what we are capable of. Without it, also, we wouldn't have Bach, Paganini, Heifetz, Perlman, Hahn, Beethoven, Mozart, etc., etc., etc. Nothing wrong with striving for perfection.

- However, if you EVALUATE yourself by whether you have actually achieved perfection, that creates a kind of impossible situation. No human being is perfect (Well, I have never made a mistake - I thought I did once, but I was wrong). We are imperfect beings, and if ever there is an activity in life in which it is impossible to be perfect, it is playing the violin. If you don't believe me, listen to the "classic" violin recordings (or any live performance) - the best of them have little glitches all over the place.

The problem here (as I have said elsewhere) is when we equate PERFECTION with ADEQUACY. If the ONLY way you can be adequate is to be perfect, then you are doomed. The slightest mistake, and you fall off the pedestal of perfection (and it's a long, long way to fall). And it doesn't matter whether it's practicing or a performance - you're either perfect or you are totally unacceptable - nothing in between exists.

Well, as human beings, we are ALL in between. So I think if you can find a way to forgive yourself for making mistakes and (as others have said so well here) focus on the music and the moment, and at the same time strive for perfection (the holy grail of excellence), it will make things a lot easier, a lot more realistic, and a lot more satisfying.

Hope that helps.



July 25, 2012 at 05:44 PM · One of my friends--a rabbi--said to me once: "only G-d is perfect, and he's not sure about him."

You will make mistakes. You will even make the same mistakes over and over. The only really BIG mistake is letting that destroy all the music you are making.

You talk about trust. People don't trust you because you are perfect; they will trust you because you are human.

July 25, 2012 at 09:39 PM · We need to strive more for balance than perfection. One of my favorite bits of wisdom ever passed on to me was by my first teacher, Harry Fratkin, an Auer pupil. He used to say "you must be at one and the same time your own severeist critic AND your own greatest admirer." One or the other alone, won't work.

Playing with a horror of making any mistake first and foremost also militates against free and joyous music making. How many of us have experinced this in orchestra with a tyranical conductor? We should think about sharing something beautiful with our audience as well as details. But let's not lose the forrest for the trees.

Speaking of mistakes on purpose, there's the famous story of when George Bernard Shaw, famous playwrite and also a music critic heard Heifetz as a young man. The next day he wrote him the following letter:

"My dear Heifetz,

Your performance last night filled me and my wife with anxiety. If you continue to provoke a jeaolus God by presuming to play so faultlessly, you will surely die young. I earnestly suggest that you play some false notes every night before going to bed in lieu of prayers."

July 25, 2012 at 09:59 PM · It has been said, with justification, that the classical guitar is the most unforgiving of instruments; a fluffed, missed or just plain wrong, note can stand out like a beacon and there is practically nothing you can do about it because the moment has gone (I know, I've been there), unless your name is Andres Segovia.

The mention of Heifetz in the previous post reminds me of yet another story about him - it may be apocryphal for all I know - where the great man said that in octave runs he might sometimes play one note very slightly out of tune, just to demonstrate that he was indeed playing octaves!

July 25, 2012 at 10:11 PM · Trevor:

Whether Heifetz was playing octaves slight out of tune or not, in my long but amateur experience listening and playing, I have NEVER heard any other violinist play octaves (or double-stops, for that matter) and actually make it sound like two completely different and separate voices, each with its own unique timbre and sound. He made it sound like he was focusing 100% of his attention on each voice simultaneously, as if he was a soprano and an alto singing a duet. Whether it's perfection or not, how the heck does someone make one violinist sound like two?

July 25, 2012 at 10:18 PM · Something more practical - accept that perfection in playing can never be achieved, so treat playing music as fun. You'll be mentally and physically more relaxed, which will tend to reduce the number of random mistakes (i.e. those that are not caused by inadequate preparation), and if there is a sense of fun in your playing you can be sure that mistakes will not be noticed by 99.9% of an audience, and the .1% who do notice will understand because they've been there themselves.

Some years ago my orchestra was performing the Elgar cello concerto with a young lady soloist, a professional, who had performed it at least a dozen times in the previous couple of years. Halfway through the last movement she started to have an unaccountable memory lapse. I saw what happened next from my vantage point in the cello first desk: our conductor, very much on the ball, grabbed his score and shoved it in front of her for a couple of seconds. That was sufficient for her to recover and continue to the end of the concerto. During the concert interval I discovered that the only players in the orchestra who had noticed what had happened were the cello first desk, the concert master and his deputy, and the principal viola. I further discovered from chatting to friends in the front row of the audience that none of them had seen anything happen, even though it was directly in front of them. So there you go.

July 25, 2012 at 10:34 PM · I used to be terrified at every performance, until I made my first mistake of the gig. Then, when I noticed that the world hadn't wobbled off its axis, there had been no thunderclap of disapproval from the heavens, and no one in the audience got up and walked out, my fears would subside.

I still get nervous, and want to do my best, but now I put my mistakes into perspective.

July 25, 2012 at 10:35 PM · Sandor, it occurs to me that a reason for that "two instrument" effect could be that Heifetz used gut A, D and G, the A and D being plain, with a steel E. The variation in tone between the strings may possibly be more pronounced than it would be with 3 synthetics + 1 steel, or 2 steel + 2 synthetics (or gut), making it easier to distinguish the voices.

Perhaps some of our expert players of gut might like to comment, but it is my feeling from my own experience of gut.

July 25, 2012 at 10:42 PM · Raphael - thanks for the shaw/heifetz story. That was delightful.

Oh to have a problem making mistakes....

July 26, 2012 at 05:49 PM · Wasn't there a story about Joshua Bell completely blowing some competition piece and starting over? After he'd made his big mistake he felt liberated and played the hell out of it from then on. Something like that?

July 26, 2012 at 06:51 PM · Thanks, y'all! Lots of good ideas.

I've got some balance back, now; When I posted this, I had just gotten back from music camp. The instructor had given me a solo to perform during the Gala (and this Gala isn't a recital... it's a 2-3 hour long production similar to the Belmont Christmas shows, with orchestra, jazz band, vocal, dance, and drama.), and I psyched myself up so bad my hands shook... All 3 performances. By the last one, my hands were shaking because I was scared that they would start shaking!

*Sigh* I've never had this problem before. Beating my myself up... sure, all the time. I've done that since the day I picked up a violin. But bad enough that it messed me up? Never.

I also hurt myself by not admitting I was nervous - I had a friend in middle school who never got nervous for a performance, but I did. She told me I shouldn't get nervous, and I started hiding my nerves from her, and then from anyone else as well. I've started hiding them from myself, and thinking that there was something wrong with me if I got nervous. Before my solo, I actually said to my friend, "I'm not nervous". Looking back... Yeah, I was nervous.

July 26, 2012 at 07:20 PM · Having been a performer for 45 years, I can say some of the best gigs we ever played were ones we made what we thought were dreadful mistakes. They became 'classics' in our memories. Life is too short to worry about a few small mistakes in a gig. Enjoy them, laugh at them, get a kick out of them, but don't beat yourself up over them. After all, it's called 'live performance' for a reason. I remember playing a show to a sold out house, and just as we took the stage, the air conditioning came on, throwing our instruments way out of tune just as we started. We still laugh about that, 20 years later. Enjoy the memories. I have tons of them, and wouldn't change the memories and laughs for anything. Gotta run, I have a gig tonight. Can't wait to see what mistake we can laugh about tomorrow. Most of the time the audience never notices anyway.

July 26, 2012 at 09:30 PM · I believe that I have shared this little anecdote somewhere on these pages, but in about 1965 I saw David Oistrakh (in Chicago) playing the Prokofiev 1st Violin Concerto (with a visiting orchestra).

The first movement was incredible; vintage Oistrakh. In that extremely difficult second movement, however, he somehow got off to a bad start, dropped notes all over the place, was out of tune, had sloppy bowing, and clearly faked a couple of passages just to keep up. It was awful.

The third movement was back to his other-worldly artistry. It was great.

The audience gave him a standing ovation, and he and the conductor walked backstage. When they returned for a curtain call, Oistrakh had his violin. The audience quieted down while he put the fiddle under his chin, the conductor raised his baton, and as an encore they re-played that devilish second movement.

This time, Oistrakh was incredible. As if to make up for his botched first attempt, this time he was truly super-Oistrakh. He played with a technical mastery and elan that I remember to this day. At the conclusion, everyone gave him a standing ovation that lasted a long time.

So, you see, even the great ones screw up, and it isn't the end of the world.

July 27, 2012 at 03:09 PM · Take a lesson from woodworking:

Apprentice: Makes mistakes and doesn't know how to fix them.

Journeyman: Makes mistakes, but knows how to fix them.

Master: Makes mistakes, but they are part of his style.

July 27, 2012 at 03:22 PM · If you look closely at most handmade (especially older) Persian rugs, you will find some sort of intentional mistake in the design. The makers do this because only God is perfect.

July 27, 2012 at 06:39 PM · You need to simply get a life ...

July 27, 2012 at 08:30 PM · Emily, your post of 26 July is very perceptive--good job.

Yes, it is more difficult if we try to deny being nervous, since nerves are part of what make us human and denying any aspect of that is likely to come back and bite us.

You seem to be very good at listening to your own 'self-talk' since that's most of what made you so nervous for the Gala. That's a good thing to know about yourself--because, more often than not, you CAN choose what you want your self-talk to consist in. If you let it run wild with negativity, well, you've seen what might happen.

Try for a mostly-positive self-talk, not shoot-the-moon-positive, but realistic positive. Helps get you to center, as well.

Good success to you.

July 28, 2012 at 06:46 AM · John, because my post about getting a life followed yours, it may have looked like it was aimed at you! It wasn't!! But just generally ...

Now I MUST be getting paranoid ... where are those pills ...

July 28, 2012 at 07:13 AM · hi Emily,

ok maybe some trivial psychologizing on my part but here goes...

do you know that its simply plainly wrong or are you looking for some sort of subversive confirmation/ validation? i mean to say, its either that perfectionism is true or false.

for false: if you have enough clarity of mind to know its wrong (if, indeed, it is wrong) and counterproductive, well you have enough clarity of mind to work on it. 'perfectionism' could be a deceptive title for something else...sometimes for compulsive unproductive attempts in the dark at making something better which yes needs to be made better. so, instead of finding a good way (or, more feasibly being taught to find the good way), we do the bad ways over and over again and to somehow protect oneself from the truth (and its something to do somewhat with pride), we call it perfectionism. this is one scenario.

the other is if its really which case it might be purely an element of neurosis and if its affecting your playing and yuor life negatively (although it can affect it positively as well, i think), then perhaps you could resort to seeing external experts ....counsellors and the like, Buri says alexander technique is very good.

just thoughts of a non expert amateur. good luck.

July 28, 2012 at 10:27 AM · I'd just played in one of my first concerts in a professional orchestra, and we were in the pub afterwards (where else?). Also in the group was a girl who'd been in a different orchestra for a number of years. I was bemoaning making a number of mistakes and suggested that one day I'd get through a concert with no mistakes. She just laughed and said "You never will". She was right! And I've since come to realise that as your standards go up, so do your expectations. You can be pleased with the way you play without it being perfect. I sometimes wonder about our great players - we hear what we consider a wonderful performance. I wonder if they're thinking "Well it was o.k. but....."

July 28, 2012 at 02:29 PM · Emily, I think it is important to be proud and accepting of yourself and your violin playing. We all look in the mirror and unless we are Snow White it is normal for us to generally feel comfortable and happy with what we see. We realize that we might not be the fairest of them all, but most of us have enough ego and narcissism to smile and be content with our image, even if there is a hair out of place or a bump on the nose. Those who are close to perfection like Snow White are filled with demons and angst and are always nervous about falling from the grace that perfection brings. Lucky for us all none of us lives in an impossible fairy tale. I am sure you make less mistakes now than you ever have, and that you continually improve as witnessed by the confidence your peers have shown in you. You have to accept whatever level you are at and continue to strive to get better. You will really never be able to play beyond your current capabilities. It is what it is. If you average 5 bad notes or squeaks in an hour of playing you just have to accept it because there is nothing you can do about it now. Next year the average amount of mistakes will probably diminish. The most important thing is what happens between the mistakes. A wise teacher once said don't worry about mistakes. You are not a surgeon. No one ever died from bad violin playing.

July 28, 2012 at 05:02 PM · OK, here are a few appropriate quotes:

George Bernard Shaw:

- "No man [one] who is occupied in doing a very difficult thing, and doing it well, ever loses his [or her] self-respect."

- "A life spent making mistakes is not only more honorable but more useful than a life spent doing nothing."

Bobby Short:

- "Life is tough; and if you're creative, it's tougher."

Steven Staryk:

- "The technical, musical, and emotional challenges of the violin are infinite."

Joseph Wechsberg:

- "A violin should be played with love, or not at all."

Sigmund Freud:

- "The nature of artistic attainment is psychologically inaccessible to us."


- "Perfection in the arts is impossible to define or agree upon, and therefore impossible to achieve."

July 30, 2012 at 08:09 PM · Terrific discussion - thanks to Emily for initiating it. I wrote a blog on that deals with this issue. Titled The Meaning in Mistakes, its central point is that when we treat mistakes as information and don't strap on emotional baggage, then we can use them to move our artistry forward.

July 31, 2012 at 03:39 PM · "Better is perfect, and perfect is irrelevant." -Burton Kaplan

August 1, 2012 at 12:08 PM · you must not be afraid not to reach perfection, because you never will!

August 1, 2012 at 12:21 PM · There is a story I heard from one of my teachers, who said he heard it from an orchestra violinist who was there.

Nathan Milstein came to (I think) Detroit for a concert. In the rehearsal, the orchestra tuned up, and then Milstein tuned up, but was just a shade sharp from the rest of the orchestra, and signaled the conductor that he was ready.

According to the story, the conductor said something like, "But, Mr. Milstein, the pitch of the orchestra is just a shade lower than yours."

"Don't worry," replied Milstein, "They'll come up."

(I do so hope this is a true story.)

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