How to Make the Correct Mistake


Contrary to popular belief, professionals make mistakes. Lots of them. It is rare that I play a concert and don’t have notes I wish I could do over. Most of my colleagues would echo these same sentiments. I know that they are going to happen so my goal is to make sure my mind and focus is in the right place so at least I am making the best mistake. Today we are going to look at some scenarios of when and why mistakes happen and try to eliminate them or at least make sure our priorities are in line so we make the best mistake.


In my mind there are two mistakes that can happen.

  1. Mistakes that you have control over: you theoretically could have prevented them.
  2. Mistakes that you have no control over: the situation was totally out of your control and there was nothing you could have done.


We can work on number 1 but the second scenario is tough to swallow. But it does happen. The ensemble moves unexpectedly. The conductor did something different and you weren’t able to adjust. There was something wrong with the instrument that you didn’t notice before the performance. The harpist moved and now you can’t see the conductor. Should I keep going? I think you get the point. We try to eliminate all variables that could prevent a good performance but sometimes the planets don’t line up and mistakes happen. I’m not going to spend a lot of time obsessing over those types of mistakes here because I have a feeling we all obsess over them an unhealthy amount already!


We can’t prevent all mistakes but how can we minimize or at least make the correct mistake? So what exactly is a correct mistake? Good question! I describe a correct mistake as a mistake that was made with the correct priorities in mind. The easiest example is a situation we have all been in. Sadly…. So, you get lost and don’t know when your next cymbal crash is. You guess, and play a loud crash, but in the wrong place. (Cue cartoon noise Wah, Wah…) Obviously we never want to be lost, but it happens. The “correct” mistake in this scenario is to either rely on cues you wrote in your part as you were preparing or simply don’t play if you are truly lost. Not playing the crash is a mistake for sure. But wouldn’t you rather miss the crash than play it two bars to soon? More examples of “correct” mistakes later.


A lot of mistakes happen due to lack of preparation. As I talked about in my post on learning how to focus, preparation is our biggest asset. The first step is learning the notes. This is obvious but should be stated as you will have little to no success not knowing your part. The next step in ensemble playing that is often over looked is knowing how your part fits into the ensemble. You can play all the right notes but if they don’t fit with everyone else, it doesn’t matter. The more you know your part and how it fits with others the better you will be at preventing mistakes.


Some mistakes can happen because of non-musical situations. The pedal on the chimes could be stuck and you not notice until you have to play. A quick check before the concert and you are good to go. A situation that happened to me recently was right at the beginning of an opera my mallets were hovering over the first notes but the conductor took more time than usual waiting for the stage before starting. I got a little nervous about making sure I was above the right notes so I looked down to double check. When I looked back up, the orchestra had started. Whoops! I jumped back on but not exactly the start you want! So the next performance I rested my mallets right on top of the first notes so I could literally watch the conductor forever and be ready to go. Lesson learned. The more experience I gain the more I try to anticipate non-musical situations like this to be prepared for. It’s a different kind of preparation but one you can develop an eye for.


Unfortunately a lot of mistakes happen because of mental fatigue or a lack of focus. You can be as ready as you can possibly be but you might be tired or just zoned out. If it is a lack of focus that is creating the mistakes then you need to work on your focusing. This is a skill that can be practiced and improved. If you are simply tired or exhausted, then you need to be aware of what you limit is and make sure you have adequate rest before a performance.


Now to the most important part of avoiding mistakes. Making sure your priorities are correct and in line. Remember a correct mistake is a mistake that was made with the correct priorities in mind. I’ll give you an example before I list some of what I think are the right priorities to have.


In the same opera I missed the opening of (doh!) I had this passage to play on glock.


The passage is obviously syncopated and is with the woodwinds. In one of the first rehearsals (luckily) I was really focused on the conductor and the winds so we would be lined up and I played the following.


Sure I missed some notes at the end but the notes I played showed I had the correct priorities in mind. I was still playing within G minor. I played the same syncopated rhythms the winds had. I played the same shape or line they had. While of course I realized immediately I had a made a mistake, it was one I could live with. In fact I would rather play what I did, together with the ensemble, than be glued to my part, play the right notes but not with the ensemble.


So what are some other priorities we should keep in mind to make sure we are making the correct mistake?


The time of the orchestra and my placement

Who I am playing with in the orchestra

The key signature

The “scale” my passage is in

The cues right before I play

The relative dynamic of the orchestra

Where the big moments are

What big beats need to line up

My role in the orchestra


Of course the goal is to play perfectly all the time. If we are honest with ourselves we know this is not possible. After I make a mistake, of course I’m upset and wish I could go back and fix it, but guess what? Not possible! That’s live music baby!! With this approach though I am able to minimize my mistakes or at least make correct ones. The better your prepare, stay focused, and have your priorities in line, the better your performances will become.



Learning How to be a Performer: Focusing in the Moment


A performance is really a continuous series of moments in which one’s sole focus is on executing their contribution to that performance. That’s a heavy statement right there… Learning how to focus in those moments is a life’s work. I believe everyone has this skill, even those who claim to have severe performance anxiety. The difference between all of us is where our performing skills shine. Some of us have the ability to focus when performing music, some have the ability to focus while cooking. I couldn’t possibly stay calm and focused during surgery, but to a surgeon it’s just another day at the office. However, that surgeon might be petrified to play a single triangle note onstage. We all have our areas we are more apt to succeed in. Today we will discuss how to focus onstage.

Earlier I said “one’s sole focus is on executing their contribution to that performance.” This is the crux of performing. If I am playing bass drum on Stars and Stripes, fitting those quarter notes in the right spot is 100% where my mind is. I am listening to the basses and the low brass to make sure my placement is perfect. If they move ahead a smidge, I want to be right there with them. Earlier in the concert I could have been playing the tambourine part to Carnival Overture and in that moment it would be focusing on leading the ensemble. The reason Bolero is so difficult is not because of its technical difficulties. The challenge lies in the ability to focus and keep the group together for the entire 15 minutes of the piece. Having big ears and adjusting and moving the group into some semblance of the same tempo throughout the piece takes a lot of mental energy. This is the perfect example of a piece that demands focus and being in the moment. Learning how to sharpen our focus will be the goal of today’s post.

The first time I really worked on this was at Northwestern’s summer music camp the summer of my junior year in high school. I must admit, it was not a fully conscious effort. The players I was playing with were the best I had ever been around and I certainly didn’t want to be the weak link in the group. It was a wakeup call. I thought to myself, “Hey, you better dial it in here to fit in with these other kids.” That motivation caused me to focus more during rehearsals and especially in concerts. It wasn’t so much that I was afraid to mess up as I wanted to play on the same level as these other fantastic young musicians. I realized that I was learning how to be in the moment and concentrate solely on the task at hand; playing music. That “zen” state I was in was one that I have been working on perfecting ever since.

So how can one get better at this? Learning to focus in the moment is incredibly difficult. And there is nothing less helpful when trying to focus than someone saying…… FOCUS!!! Even those that are great at it still have wandering minds. (I find myself distracted by the backyard that needs mowing as I type this…) I find a lot of the tactics to deal with a wandering mind to be a little too “hocus pocus” for me. I know they work for some people, but I never found them helpful. The drill I have found to be the most helpful is to ask myself the question “What is my goal?”. A very simply question, but one that gets right to the point. What I find is that my mind immediately goes to what I am trying to accomplish. If I am playing the Third Movement of Scheherazade and I ask myself “What is my goal?” my brain immediately goes to:

project a light, lilting style

very steady and supportive

sensitive, round dynamics

energy in the rhythms

Ask yourself the same question about Porgy and Bess. Take 30 seconds to make a list of your goals.

What you will notice is you came up with some very concrete musical goals to accomplish. What you will also notice after the fact, is what you weren’t thinking about! You weren’t thinking about your shaky hands. You weren’t thinking about how you always miss the A natural in that one spot. You weren’t thinking about how out of control the grass is in the backyard either. This is a great way to focus in a performance or audition and essentially distract yourself by asking the right question. That question might be different for you but asking yourself some version of “What is my goal?” shifts your brain to what is important. This is a topic discussed at length in the book I mentioned last week Fearless Golf, with obviously much more of a golf focus.

So why a question and not a statement? A question is a better way to refocus because it causes you to focus on what YOU think is the answer. A statement is merely a list of facts you believe in, but a question engages the brain in a much deeper way. It almost starts a conversation in your brain. For example which thought do you think is going to be more helpful?

“What is the style of this work?”

“Don’t rush.”

Asking yourself about the style is significantly more helpful! It conjures up multiple adjectives and thoughts that are going to help your performance. Telling yourself not to rush may prevent you from rushing but will not be helpful in any musical way and may even cause you to drag!

Obviously this is incredibly easier said than done, but it is an exercise that I really believe works. Just like music, being able to focus is a lifelong pursuit. Even when life is great it is easy to be distracted, let alone when things aren’t great. For anyone who has stood onstage in a performance and felt really involved in the performance and been tuned in knows what a rush that is. That is exactly the goal! Good luck with your own pursuit of being a performer; now I’ve got to go mow the lawn!