Tag Archives: learning from mistakes

The success in failure 

A new museum in Helsingborg, Sweden, celebrates failure. Yes, you read that correctly – it celebrates failure. The museum displays corporate products which flopped but which paved the way for greater innovation and extraordinary commercial success (for example, Apple’s Newton device was the forerunner of the iPhone and iPad), and prove that failure, and a willingness to learn from it, is a crucial part of success.

“Innovation requires failure. Learning is the only process that turns failure into success.”

– Dr Samuel West, creator of The Museum of Failure

Meanwhile at Smith College in the US students can enroll on a “Failing well” course designed to “destigmatize failure”, foster resilience and equip them with the tools to cope with the exigencies of real life – failures, setbacks, disappointments, making wrong choices.

Despite knowing that we can learn from mistakes, and that the process is an important aspect of life experience, most of us fear failure, and fear the reactions to that failure – ridicule from family, friends, colleagues, embarrassment, personal disappointment, negative self-talk, imposter syndrome, crippling self-doubt and depression. As musicians, setbacks and failure can have a profound effect on how we approach our music making and professional career. If we perceive failure as humiliation, it can paralyse our ability to learn and develop, but if we can separate our ego from the failure or setback, we can use the experience positively as an informed learning process to shape our future approach, make us stronger and motivate us to work harder and smarter. Sadly for many of us, the “wrongness” of making mistakes is inculcated in us from a young age – by parents, teachers, and peers – and such prejudices combined with a constricted mindset leads us to blame and criticise ourselves for our failings.

The problem for many musicians is that our music and our instrument are crucially entwined with our identity and setbacks can therefore feel like a very personal attack. But if we are able to see what we do as ‘work’, and not allow it to define us as a person, we can take a more objective approach to mistakes and setbacks. It’s fine to take time to wallow in frustration and disappointment, but better to reflect on what can be learnt from the experience to do things differently next time.

Failure is part of creativity and mastery. Without it we cannot learn, explore, experiment, expand our horizons, and progress. By removing emotion and adopting a more positive mental attitude, we can turn failures into successes and become more creative and motivated to succeed. Neuroscientists have found that the parts of our brain responsible for self-monitoring are actually switched off when we are being creative. Thus, by being creative, negative feelings connected with failure can be turned down, allowing the brain to think clearly and spark new ideas and approaches.

My students don’t believe me when I tell them about a book called The Perfect Wrong Note, which celebrates mistakes and what we can learn from them. In our day-to-day practise, mistakes should always be regarded as opportunities for evaluation, reflection and refinement. Mistakes should encourage us to consider the following questions:

  • Where did the mistake happen?
  • Why did the mistake happen? Was it due to poor fingering, poor technique, misreading?
  • How can I put this right?
  • What can I do to ensure I don’t make the same mistake again (or elsewhere in the music)?

As a teacher, the student who continues to make the same mistakes should give one pause for thought, calling into question one’s teaching approach and forcing one to consider the following:

  • Why is the student making this mistake/s?
  • Does the student know why the mistake is occurring?
  • How can I help him/her put it right?
  • Is there something lacking in my teaching? Am I not explaining something clearly, has the student been using an awkward fingering or does he/she need some technical assistance?

Mistakes show we are human, and fallible, that it’s ok to have an off day when your playing and practising may not go as well as usual. Giving ourselves permission to make mistakes allows us to be fulfilled by our music and to feel empowered about our practising. A willingness to make mistakes teaches us to be self-critical, but in a positive, productive way.

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Mistakes and failures contain all the information needed for learning – if we are willing to use it – and as the Museum of Failure demonstrates, failure is a crucial part of innovation, creativity and progress.

There is no such thing as failure — failure is just life trying to move us in another direction……Learn from every mistake. Because every experience, encounter, and particularly your mistakes are there to teach you and force you into being more of who you are.

– Oprah Winfrey

 

 

On icebergs and creativity

Musicians will be familiar with this image of an iceberg. The tip, the visible part, represents our public persona and the music we perform and share with others, while the mass which is hidden below the surface of the water represents the many hours of practise, study and preparation which enable us to perform. Anyone who believes that music flows effortlessly from the musician’s body or who thinks it is “easy” should consider this illustration below and its metaphor.

But what if we allowed others a glimpse into our practise rooms, to watch us practising, working, refining and finessing our music, to sit in on rehearsals with colleagues, and to observe the long and detailed process that goes into making a concert which may only last for 90 minutes?

In a college of art and design in the US, students are being encouraged to do just that – to offer up their work-in-progress, their rough drafts and preliminary designs, even their mistakes, for scrutiny by others in a new exhibition called ‘Permission to Fail’. We are used in exhibitions, books and concerts to seeing and hearing the finished article and I think this often makes viewers and listeners rather complacent, or even ignorant, about the long and involved creative processes which go into producing a work of art or preparing a piece of music for performance. It is all the working out, the sketching, redrawing, practising and pondering which enables us to unleash our creativity, and by learning from our mistakes and our “workings out”, we reach a finished product wrought from a special mixture of curiosity, exploration, trial and error, hard graft, and imagination.

Music practise is usually undertaken alone and in private, except when colleagues come together to rehearse ahead of a concert. Do we really want others to see us sweating over a knotty section, swearing at that passage which always trips us up, hear 50 repetitions of the same section, practising to make the music permanent and perfect? There is however a great curiosity about how musicians, and other creative people, work: I find this often manifests itself in (sometimes daft) questions about “finding the time” and much exclaiming about the amount of time one spends doing it. Then there is the ongoing “not a proper job” aspect of being a musician (or writer or artist) whereby because one loves what one is doing it can’t possibly be serious or commercial, and that practising, or drafting a synopsis or sketching out a painting, is somehow self-indulgent and without value. The pianist Valentina Lisitsa filmed her practise sessions and it was the huge popularity of these video clips that enabled her to relaunch her career. In a way, these films proved that she was a fallible human being, and offered a glimpse into her world as a working musician, which made it more comprehensible to those outside the profession.

Many art exhibitions these days will include the artist’s ephemera, including notebooks, sketchbooks and scrapbooks. Of course for most artists, these books were private, not for public consumption and were the artist’s way of recording ideas to be worked up later in the studio: they were never intended to be shown to the public, yet they offer fascinating insights into the working practices, processes and mindset of a creative person. They also reinforce the fact that creativity is not just about the finished product, it is also about the journey to get there. I think it’s important that we as practitioners of a creative activity appreciate the the joys and frustrations, the mistakes and the eureka moments which we must go through, and to regard all of these as important staging points on the journey. The “10,000 hours rule” has largely been debunked, with an emphasis now placed more firmly on quality rather than quantity of practise. That said, one does need to put in the hours and practising should be habitual, concentrated and thoughtful.

I’ve never regarded my practising as some mystic art, to be kept secret and hidden. I’d much rather people better understand the process involved in learning and finessing music instead of saying daft things to me like “it’s amazing how it just comes out of your fingers” and “How do you do it?”. This is why I share my practise habits with my students, so that they understand that while we might undertake the practising alone, we are in fact engaged in a shared activity – creating music.

Further reading:

How Creativity is Helped by Failure

Accountability in Practice – article by pianist and teacher Graham Fitch

Loving your mistakes

A guest post by Nora Krohn

One night after a concert I was having a drink with a colleague who told me a bizarre story about a graduate school audition he’d taken. While entering the subway en route to the audition, weighed down by his violin case and a large suitcase, he walked through the service gate behind someone else rather than swiping his card at the turnstile. Since he had an unlimited monthly pass, he had essentially pre-paid his fare and assumed there was nothing unlawful about walking through the gate. So he was stunned when a police officer stopped him, arrested him for fare evasion, and took him to jail.

With his violin case sitting on the other side of the bars enclosing his cell, he called the audition committee to explain the situation, and then waited anxiously, not knowing when he would be released. A few hours later, the officer finally let him go with a summons to appear in court a few weeks later. He grabbed his violin, rushed to the hall, made it there 20 minutes before his audition, played beautifully, and was accepted.

When he got to the end of his story, I was astounded. “How could you possibly stay focused with so much stress and distraction? Weren’t you furious?” I asked. “ I would have been a mess.”

“I wasn’t nervous or angry, I was totally relaxed actually,” he replied with a smile. “You see, the situation was so over the top I’d already let go of the outcome. Whatever happened I knew it wouldn’t be my fault.”

My colleague could relax and allow his great talent and preparation to shine through in spite of these acutely stressful events because he knew whatever flaws that resulted from them were clearly not his responsibility. The absurdity of the whole thing disarmed him, and he let go.

For many of us it’s not so easy to hold the things that go wrong with lightness—to regard them as vicissitudes of fortune rather than as tactical errors, character flaws, or divine punishment. But as I pondered my friend’s story, I began to see that letting go of the impulse to assign blame for our past and future mistakes—whether to others or to ourselves—is crucial for our growth. Instead of defining ourselves by our missteps, we can learn to see them as vital steps toward greater wisdom.

Here is an example from my own experience.

Trying to Be Right

This past spring I arranged a play-through of my recital program for a colleague in preparation for an upcoming concert. In starting to collaborate more with piano, I’d discovered that my knee-jerk habit, honed from years of orchestral playing, is to blend with and defer to what’s going on around me, instead of taking charge. After that realization I’d worked hard to learn what it meant to fully occupy, or request, if necessary, the musical space I needed to play with the command that performing as a soloist requires.

As the pianist and I played through our program for my colleague, I started to feel that the music was tumbling by too quickly and I that didn’t have space to execute things the way I wanted to. In my frustration, I tried to slow down, but the pianist and I weren’t aligning, and my frustration persisted through the end of the play-through.

After we finished, my colleague offered us warm praise, and then gently suggested that in my efforts to play everything as exquisitely as I’d set out to, I was blocking the flow of the music. I countered that I had been trying to slow things down to give myself space and strength. But she replied that while my intention was good, it couldn’t work in performance, when the music of the moment required me to join up with a gesture or tempo that was already in motion. Her words and voice were kind, but I felt chastened and confused. I’d been trying so hard to be “right.” Now I felt I was back to being “wrong.”

But as I thought about it, I saw the wisdom in my colleague’s advice. In rehearsal, it was important to lead by communicating how I thought the music should flow. But in the moment of performance, I had to let go of all of that effort and be flexible in working with the particular demands of the situation instead of fighting them, no matter how “right” or “wrong” they might feel.

“Just Relax”

A few weeks ago I encountered another situation where my desire to be “right on” was inhibiting I was playing with a pianist in a master class at Madeline Bruser’s Art of Practicing Institute summer program, and we were trying to get the ensemble of a particular cadence just right. From my previous experiences, of first trying to follow the pianist, and then trying too hard to lead, I instinctively knew that for us to be together, the main thing I needed was to be solidly connected to myself—that if I could stand clearly in my own feelings and convictions, I could naturally connect with the pianist and she would know exactly where to place her notes. But I also knew that making a big effort to connect to myself would tie me up in knots. It had to just happen, but I didn’t know how.

When I explained this predicament to Madeline she said, “It sounds like you just need to let your mind relax.” Luckily we had been meditating for two hours a day for the previous five days, so after closing my eyes for a few moments I was able to let go and merge my mind with the sounds I was hearing and with the feeling in my body. We played the passage again, and the cadence flowed effortlessly. Buoyed with confidence, we tried the same idea at another cadence and were again completely in sync. But at the last second the pianist was so relaxed she played a glaring wrong note, and everyone in the room burst out laughing. It was a really great mistake, because it loosened us up, and brought everyone closer together for a moment.

When “Wrong” is Just Right

While I was at the summer program, another friend told me he was in the process of writing a piece for a student orchestra. The previous day he’d gone on a walk and felt very inspired, and sat down to write several minutes of music. But he went on to confess that after listening to it the next day he found it mawkishly sentimental and embarrassing. He dubbed it “The Happy Bunny Farm,” and played it for me, and we laughed about it. But the day after we talked he felt fresh and full of good ideas, and ended up finding the thread that became the piece he did write. He just had to get the Happy Bunny Farm out of his system first. One songwriter I know recently told me he asks his students to do what he calls the “Bad Songs Challenge.” They write one complete “bad” song per day for a week, and in the process they accumulate valuable insights about what works, what doesn’t, and why. And presumably they share a few good laughs.

I’ve spent the last few years trying to get more comfortable with the idea of screwing up, but the truth is it’s still hard to deal with. I’d always heard the phrases “mistakes are inevitable,” or “you learn from your mistakes,” but it’s taken a long time to start acquainting myself with the palpable meaning of those words. In reflecting on the missteps I’ve made as a performer, I’ve begun to see them not as pitfalls I could have avoided by being better or smarter, but as necessary steps on the path toward true confidence, a confidence based not on protecting myself from being wrong, but on becoming big and bold enough to welcome any experience that comes my way, wrong or right.

The word “forgive” comes from the Old English forgiefan. Another translation of that word is “to give up.” In my case, forgiving myself for my mistakes means giving up feeling any certainty about whether I’m on the right track. I often feel lost, uncertain whether my next step will take me closer to or further from what I desire, which is to communicate truth and beauty. But the alternative is to remain paralyzed by the fear of being wrong, which makes it impossible to take even one step forward into the vast and beautiful wilderness that is ours to know. Getting lost is not only inevitable, but vitally important. When we can hold our missteps with gentleness and humor, we are exactly where we need to be. The path is in the walking of it.

A versatile performer and recording artist in the New York area, Nora Krohn has performed on three continents in a diverse range of venues and styles. She is the Assistant Principal violist of the Ridgefield Symphony, section violist in the Binghamton Philharmonic, and she performs frequently with a dozen other orchestral ensembles throughout the Northeast. Her numerous recording credits include collaborations with Phil Dizack and Declan O’Rourke, and commercial projects for Budweiser and Tiffany and Co. She can also be seen in several episodes of Amazon’s web series “Mozart in the Jungle.”  

Founding member of pioneering viola duo Folie à Deux, Nora is also an avid chamber musician. As a recitalist, she has performed on the St. John’s Noontime Concert Series in Williamstown, MA, on the Turtle Bay Music School Artist Series, the Project 142 Series at The Concert Space at Beethoven Pianos, and for the inaugural Art of Practicing Institute fundraising concert. In October 2011 she was featured as a soloist in Paul Hindemith’s Trauermusik with the Chelsea Symphony. 

Nora graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Brown University, where she earned a BA in Music and Spanish Literature and was the recipient of the Buxtehude and Muriel Hassenfeld Mann Premiums in Music. She received her MM in Viola Performance from SUNY Purchase College, where she studied with Ira Weller.

www.norakrohn.com

The perfect wrong note

My students don’t believe me when I tell them there is a book called The Perfect Wrong Note. Nor do they believe me when I tell them that mistakes are good, that mistakes make us better musicians.

The desire for perfectionism is all around us in our modern society, from the need to produce a perfectly cut and edited film or CD, to the pressure to achieve the “perfect body” (whatever that is!). Very young children are immune to this pressure: they learn from mistakes, often made during play, and by doing so gain a huge amount of knowledge about the world around them before they have stepped foot inside a school environment. But from the moment they are in school, they are encouraged not to make mistakes, and through the demands placed upon them by teachers, peers and parents, they develop a certain moral judgement and become self-critical. They learn that not making mistakes wins praise, while making mistakes results in disapproval.

Being a musician, particularly a professional musician, is highly demanding, and the training required is extremely rigorous. Music students strive for mastery and perfection in their playing, because they know that being well-qualified in this respect will earn them merit and recognition, from teachers, peers, audiences and critics. As musicians, and teachers of musicians, it is important that we set ourselves high standards, but constantly striving for perfection can promote false or impossible standards.

As pianist and teacher Charlotte Tomlinson says in her excellent book Music from the Inside Out, people frequently – and wrongly – equate perfection with excellence. While perfectionism is negative and damaging, excellence is achievable and positive.

When I’m teaching students, and when I’m practising myself, I never see a wrong note as a mistake. Wrong notes and mistakes are instructive – and we can always learn from them. When an error occurs, we need to ask ourselves some key questions:

  • Do I know where the mistake happened?
  • Do I know why the mistake happened?
  • Do I know how to put the mistake right so it doesn’t happen again?

All mistakes happen for a reason and it’s important that we understand why a mistake happened and what we can do to prevent it re-occurring. Sometimes it may be something quite simple like a poor or awkward fingering scheme; but sometimes mistakes, particularly those that recur in the same places, may be the sign of a more deep-seated issue, technical, physical or psychological.

When students come to lessons with me, many of them play their pieces with slips and errors – and many of them stop to correct these errors, despite my saying “keep going!”. I try to encourage students to “play through”, to keep the flow of the piece going by not stopping to correct each and every mistake. Look at any exam report, for whatever grade, and you will see that “flow”, or rather lack of flow, is a constant gripe of music examiners. Constantly stopping to correct mistakes becomes ingrained in the muscle memory to the point where one will always stop at the same point, even if the mistake is no longer there.  I worry when students play blindly, not taking notice of what they are doing, not listening, because this is when mistakes get overlooked, and keep cropping up, week after week. Mistakes such as these are hard to correct and need careful, detailed practising to put right. Mistakes made from poor conception and understanding, lack of preparation or careless practising need consistent work to put them right. But mistakes made from off the cuff inspiration and insight can be wonderful and exciting.

Mistakes show we are human, and fallible, that it’s ok to have an off day when your playing and practising may not go as well as usual. Giving ourselves permission to make mistakes allows us to be fulfilled by our music and to feel positive about our practising. A willingness to make mistakes teaches us to be self-critical, but in a positive, productive way.

An excellent performance may not be a perfect performance – but the excellent performance will almost certainly be the one which conveys the meaning and emotion of the music, which tells the story, communicates with the audience and allows the listener to be carried away by the music, to the point that the performer almost becomes invisible. Some of the greatest pianists of all time made visible mistakes in their performances – Liszt, Anton Rubinstein, Paderewski, Cortot, Hofman, Moiseiwitsch, Horowitz, Richter, Gilels – but these people remain piano legends because of the beauty of their playing, their insight and communication, and interpretative skills. I have been to concerts by some of the top professional pianists in the world and have heard mistakes – split notes, a smeared run, a missed chord. I’ve even been party to a few memory lapses on occasion. Did these spoil the concert experience as a whole? Of course not, because the performer played with conviction, emotion, musical understanding, passion.

We need to learn how to free ourselves from the tyranny of perfectionism to become more fluent, confident, convincing and expressive musicians. We should strive for the “ideal” not the “perfect” version in our music. And as Charlotte Tomlinson says in Chapter 3 of her book, sometimes we just need a “f**k it switch”, to free us from stress and allow us to stand back and see the bigger picture.

Further reading:

Music from the Inside Out – Charlotte Tomlinson

The Perfect Wrong Note – William Westney

The Inner Game of Music – Barry Green

The Musician’s Way – Gerald Kilckstein

This article originally appeared on my sister blog Frances Wilson’s Piano Studio.