I remember a lesson I learned when I was playing violin in the Oklahoma All-State Orchestra. I believe I was a senior in high school, and we were rehearsing the William Tell Overture. If I remember correctly, which I may not, our guest conductor that year was the conductor of the University of Wisconsin Symphony Orchestra. I remember only two things he taught us, and neither of them had anything to do with the actual music. (By the way, if you’ve never heard the cello solo at the beginning of the William Tell Overture, do yourself a favor and go look it up. The Lone Ranger section isn’t the best part of the piece.)
First, always always always have a pencil (not a pen) ready during rehearsal, and use it. You cannot possibly remember at the performance everything you should remember, so make yourself notes. Write on the music. Help yourself out. Tidy sheet music is much less important than a good performance.
But the second lesson is the point of this post. I remember him saying, “If you’re going to make a mistake, make a big one. Make one that everyone hears!” This is something I have shared with students over the years and without fail, they always give me a funny look. After all, who wants to make a big mistake that everyone hears? Wouldn’t a small discrete one be better?
So why is this a good idea? This is good advice because most of the time you won’t make the mistake. But let’s say you do make a mistake, hit a wrong note, or play the right note at the wrong time, at least all the other notes you play correctly will be played well and with confidence, which will produce a much better performance than a timid player who is afraid of making that one mistake.
I am by nature a very careful person. If I am not absolutely sure of something, I don’t like to say it. If I can’t be 100% sure of success, I’d rather practice some more, study some more, before I go out and try and risk making a mistake. But I think that conductor over 20 years ago was on to something.
If we look at the way children learn, we see that it is from repetition and mistakes, and even repeated mistakes. Sitting, walking, eating, talking, and every other skill learned within the first two years is preceded by repeated failure. Even after two years of constant practice, mistakes are still made, and we adults expect that. Babies are not afraid of falling when they take that first step, and their adults are not afraid of them falling. Even a baby that stumbles and hurts herself often will not even cry unless the adults in the room make a big deal of it.
The acquisition of language skills absolutely requires making mistakes. The reason immersion into a language is the best way to learn it is because it forces the student to make mistakes and learn from them.
So where along the way do we become so careful, so fearful of messing up? I don’t know the answer to that, but I think some of it should be unlearned. I would much rather work with a student who is excited, willing to try, wanting to get in there and do something, than the student who is scared and timid.
Oh, I don’t expect mistakes and failures to ever feel good. They will always be embarrassing. But I need to remember that, and I believe it was my granddad who used to say, “Anything worth doing is worth doing wrong while you learn to do it right “.
So practice, rehearse, and use that pencil, but then when it comes time to get the job done, don’t be afraid to make mistakes. If you’re going to make a mistake, make a big one.