[Editor’s Note: This article was written by Patrick McGuire and originally appeared on FlyPaper, the Soundfly Blog.]
Most musicians are taught early in their training that mistakes are the enemy. There’s the right way to read music, or execute scales, or understand music theory, and then there are the endless number of wrong ways to go about doing things. Long before musicians can be expressive and take musical risks, they have to stick within a narrow set of rules in order to perform.
That’s the mindset of many music teachers, anyway. If you’ve got any musical experience under your belt personally, you probably know where this is going.
The rigidity that many of us bring on our musical paths can deeply hurt us later on as musicians. A chronic fear of making mistakes has resulted in more bland songs than we can count. It’s a mindset that inspires fear and dread in the hearts of amazing musicians and keeps them from taking risks and embracing new ideas in their performances.
In a non-musical sense, the fear of failure leads musicians to opt for safe predictability in their careers when they should be seeking life-changing opportunities. Mistakes might seem like the enemy when we’re just starting out in music, but living your musical life in a way that avoids failure at all costs can eat away at your creativity, your musicianship, and your ability to innovate.
In other words, fearing failure can pretty easily backfire, and end up sabotaging your career itself.
So rather than shake in your boots at the thought of messing up, you’re far better off accepting the inevitability of failure happening along the route, and making every effort you can to embrace mistakes as opportunities.
Whether you’re tackling an instrument for the first time, performing new songs live in front of an audience, or writing a new album, mistakes can be extremely valuable. Mistakes serve as chances for creative experimentation, technical improvement, and the development of musical character.
For example, we all know there are concrete pitches singers strive to hit, but we also know there are an endless number of ways to sing. The shortcomings you hear in your own voice might be marks of style and character that singers with more conventional voices too easily ignore. Some of the things we view as mistakes in music can be interpreted as important reminders that we’re human beings creating and performing in front of audiences of other human beings.
But what about embarrassing slip-ups on stage? Surely there aren’t any positives to be found from those, right?
Live performance mistakes might be some of the most important opportunities for learning and growth that musicians can find. If you refuse to play live until you’re convinced you’ve achieved musical perfection, then you’ll never set foot on another stage.
Mistakes happen at every level of musical experience; forgetting lyrics, playing out of rhythm, and mixing up your chords aren’t the worst ones you can make. If you’re focused on having fun and enjoying yourself on stage, you’re probably going to miss a few notes, but nobody is going to care because perfection is almost never the point of seeing live music.
The point is to have a good time and be entertained.
Most audiences don’t want or expect perfection. They’re looking to see and hear something compelling and to feel connected in some way. Common live musical mistakes can be forgiven, but listeners will quickly get bored if your playing isn’t genuine and full of passion, even if you play through perfectly.
There isn’t a clear way for musicians to overcome their hang-ups with musical failure, but a good place to start is by focusing on your musical priorities. No matter where you’re at in your career or interest in music, forgetting what drives you to create, perform, learn, and explore leaves you in a bad spot as a musician.
You can also focus on growth. When you focus on growth, it’s easier to see those mistakes as part of the greater path towards meeting and exceeding your goals.
All of us want to be our best musical selves, but we can’t get there without embracing a vivid love for what we do and the inevitable stumbles that come with it. So the next time you make a mistake, hold up a glass of champagne and toast to it as a little reminder that you’re doing what you love!
Patrick McGuire is a writer, musician and human man. He lives nowhere in particular, creates music under the name Straight White Teeth, and has a great affinity for dogs and putting his hands in his pocket.