The night before my junior undergraduate recital, I dreamt that I performed the Bach Sonata in E Major on a mechanical pencil instead of a flute. The most terrifying part of the dream wasn't the fact that I was attempting to give a recital on a pencil, but all the mistakes I made while playing.
Many musicians fear mistakes. We may base our self-worth on our ability to play without mistakes, and go to great lengths to avoid them. In some, fear of mistakes leads to an overly cautious approach that compromises exploration of the full range of musical expression.
Fear + Hesitation
A common issue, especially in younger students, is hesitation and pausing when a difficult spot approaches. Many times, students stop in their tracks, then continue through the difficult section perfectly. They've learned the piece, and are able to execute, but fear creates a fragmented presentation.
While mistakes may be the stuff of nightmares, we would be unable to grow without them. In a previous post on 5 Things Body Mapping Has Taught Me, a quote of Barbara Conable stands out as a simple, yet crucial concept for redirecting the fear of mistakes:
"Mistakes are information."
Something I teach my students early on is to embrace mistakes. Beyond accepting that they happen, we make them happen on purpose, and even celebrate our cracked notes! Getting past the fear and judgement associated with making mistakes provides freedom from anxiety and self-loathing, and gives room for growth.
Put a Microscope On It
I love the expression "put a microscope on it" because it encourages us to slow down and inspect all facets of what we're doing with a fine-tooth comb. The amount of things we can uncover about ourselves and our playing can be quite surprising when approaching our mistakes in this way. Explore your mistakes, and experiment by making subtle changes to find a more desirable result. Going beyond the surface with patience allows a deeper understanding, and this is where I find myself in breakthrough moments!
Take the Risk
In performance, overcoming fear of mistakes comes down to taking risks and allowing guidance from an emotional connection to the music we're performing. It can be thrilling to take the leap of faith and play continuously despite fear. Listen, feel, and enjoy the moment. Should a mistake occur, reconnect to the support of the ground and the space, and continue to focus on the present. Practice performing and recovering from mistakes, and notice how it feels to approach a difficult moment with trust and ease.
When a note does not sound how we want, we can be quick to correct it and pretend it never happened, or we can treat it as a perfect opportunity to investigate. Replace self-judgement with excitement! In the words of Ian Clarke, "Brilliant!" There truly are treasures to be found when diving head first into mistakes.