Every musician who has ever lived made mistakes. Lots of them. What makes a musician great is their response to mistakes. Whether there is an apparent cause for the error or not, the way a musician routinely reacts after making a mistake is very important. The internal responses that eventually become habit have a huge impact on the mental state, and the progress made for every musician. This is also true of any individual in any circumstance, not just music. Programing our children (or reprogramming ourselves) to have healthy and positive internal responses to mistakes made while practicing (or performing!) will make learning music, and life in general, much more enjoyable. Developing this mental process is one reason playing music builds character.
Responding positively to mistakes doesn’t mean ignoring them, or even sugar coating them. The best approach is to simply acknowledge the error without judgment. Words like “whoops,” and “oops,” or phrases such as “try again” work very well to immediately identify an error without shaming or condescending. Next, it is important to determine whether the error is simply a random mistake, or if there is an underlying issue that needs to be addressed. This could be related to overall understanding, comprehension of the notation, playing technique or a specific skill that needs further honing. Generally, if an error only occurs once, it can be discounted as human imperfection and disregarded. No reason to berate yourself for not being perfect. This mind set only causes more mistakes because you are giving emotional energy and focus to the mistake behind instead of the continuing task at hand.
However, if the mistake is repeated, the underlying causes probably need to be addressed. Sometimes simply naming the issue is enough to correct it. The internal dialogue might go something like “That note was not correct. Why am I playing it wrong? Do I understand what it’s supposed to be? Is my fingering incorrect? Did I misread the notation? Do I need to solidify my technique by playing it slowly and carefully?” Some errors will take one more play through to correct, some may take weeks of building skill and technique to remedy. Once this initial mental process is in place though, it takes mere seconds to work through, and may not even be conscious. The process breaks down into three steps: detect an error, determine the reason for the error if possible, and then decide how to remedy it. Judgements of comparative ability or self-worth only derail the process.
An important aspect of the teacher and student relationship is to impart this mental construct to deduce causes, and therefore solutions, of mistakes onto the student. Just as language first develops as external, the model of this dialogue will eventually become the internal dialogue of the student as they practice. For this reason, is it profoundly important to have a teacher who appropriately models the positive internal dialogue. As an adult, being aware of this process and reinforcing it on your own will help it along. As a parent, continuing to model the appropriate response will help your children internalize it.
Students who are unforgiving of or disappointed by their own mistakes tend to progress the slowest. Watch out for phrases or thoughts such as “That was dumb,” “How did I mess that up?” or “I should be better than this.” It’s absolutely okay to want to be better than you are. It’s not at all helpful to put yourself down for not being there yet. Negativity simply uses up mental space that could be used to keep improving. And the funny thing about musical progress – the more you learn, the more you want to learn; and the further the goal post keeps moving. Developing constructive responses to mistakes while practicing will improve enjoyment of the activity, reinforce the positive aspects instead of the negative, and create the mental space necessary for improvement.
Sarah Nation has taught guitar to all levels and ages of students for nearly two decades. She holds a BA in Music and a professional certificate in Jazz Guitar.