Everything’s going great, the music’s flowing through you, the audience is enthralled, and then argh – You play a wrong note!

What do you do in that moment? How do you handle the mistake with grace and recover in the best possible way?

In this episode we share two mindset tips and two practical tips for handling mistakes – both in a performance situation, and in the bigger picture of your overall musical life.

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We’ve all been there.

Whether it’s alone in the practice room, during a lesson with a teacher, or up on stage in front of a live audience, we’ve all experienced those painful moments where the wrong note or chord comes out of your instrument.

Often this causes a real physical reaction in your body. You tense up, you feel suddenly anxious, thoughts and feelings of regret, shame, frustration well up inside.

Depending on how experienced you are as a musician and performer you’ll either take mistakes in your stride, or they’ll shut you down completely, or most likely it’ll be something in between where they cause problems in the moment and then linger in your mind afterwards.

In a recent episode I talked about the hidden dangers of aiming for perfection – and in particular this pervasive idea that being a good musician means “playing the right notes at the right time”.

And let me say up front, any time I use the phrase “right notes”, please assume I’m doing air quotes Because as we talked about in that episode, part of the problem is the very limited and limiting idea that there are specific “correct” notes which are the only acceptable ones to play.

We talked in that episode about how fear of mistakes and expecting perfection can restrict or even prevent creativity and often leads to stage fright.

Now if you haven’t seen that episode please check it out because the first thing to tackle is letting go of absolute perfectionism.

But assuming you’ve done that, you’ll probably still be wondering: “Okay, if mistakes are alright and I’m not getting paralyzed by regret as soon as I make them – what should I do?”

How do you recover when you do make mistakes?

Now naturally mistakes can crop up anywhere in your musical life – anywhere in your life in general, in fact! – but I want to talk about two contexts in particular…

The first context is a biggie – performance. Most of us can move on from a mistake made privately in a practice room.

But what if I ask you to imagine making a big mistake when you’re up on stage playing? Maybe you’re up there playing by yourself or maybe you’re playing in a group.

Did you instinctively flinch or tighten up just now? Depending on your personality you might feel one of those two scenarios more acutely, making a mistake solo or screwing up when you’re playing with others.

Unless you’ve spent time consciously working on this, you probably feel utterly unequipped to handle that situation.

We’ve all heard the one piece of advice – Just keep going! I think that was literally the only advice I was ever given by music teachers, they just emphasised the importance of keeping playing and trying to keep the beat steady.

And that should be piece of advice number one. As far as your audience is concerned, the most important thing is that the music goes on.

Sure, there are times when a performer might choose to call a halt, crack a joke, and start afresh – particularly if it was right at the beginning of the piece or song. But that’s rare.

For the most part we want to remember that we’re up there to create a music listening experience for the audience. And they would always rather a mistake be a small blip in the midst of an overall enjoyable, smooth, listening experience than that it completely ruin the moment and break the spell they were under, immersed in your music. Don’t let one little blip ruin that.

So keep going.

And there’s an important psychological and emotional point to mention there – the reason we keep going is that the mistake does not matter as much as the performance as a whole. In the moment it can feel like your whole world has suddenly come crashing to a halt – but the reason we’re told to keep going is that this is not the case for our listeners!

So here’s the first additional tip for recovering from mistakes – Remember that the reason we keep going is that the mistake is tiny in the context of the whole performance. A wrong note, a bad rhythm, even a forgotten phrase or fumbled melody – all of these are quickly forgiven and forgotten by the audience if the music continues.

The second tip is another mindset one and it comes back to the previous episode on perfectionism.

Remember that music is an art, not a science. We’re not trying to regurgitate facts and get answers right on a test.

When we’re up there on stage we’re creating art for our listeners to enjoy and appreciate as human beings. It should be natural, it should be organic.

If perfectly playing the right notes at the right times was the epitome of music-performance then all our concerts would be performed by robots at this stage. and in fact the arrival of the phonograph back in the nineteenth century would have put an end to live music.

So remember that mistakes are part of what makes your performance human, organic and unique – and it’s no lie to say that audiences often enjoy, appreciate and remember performances more when they had a few rough edges to keep them interesting.

Those are two big mindset techniques for recovering from mistakes, to reframe them as unimportant, and even natural.

I have two practical tips for you too.

Both reinforce that principle of “keep the music going”.

The first is to start from a very clear mental picture of the music you’re there to perform. Another way to put this is that you should be able to audiate vividly, meaning hearing in your head, how the music should sound. If you’re a notation player then you may well have skipped this stage, relying on your note reading to get you through.

But having a clear memory of how the music goes is important because it means even if you play the wrong note, in your head the right music is still playing.

To recover if you don’t have the music playing in your head like that is tough – you’ve got an awkward analytical exercise to perform rapidly in the moment to try to reconnect the notes on the page with the number of beats that have passed and what you should play next.

But if the music has continued in your head all you need to do is slip back into sync with what you’re imagining yourself playing.

That’s another way of saying that if you have a kind of “inner musician” playing the perfect performance in your head then it’s easy to just join in with them again. Without that it’s much harder to slip back into playing the right notes at the right times.

The second practical tip is a looser and more powerful form of the same thing, and that’s to learn some basic improvisation skills.

If you’re comfortable improvising a bit in a given key then at any time in a performance if the right notes escape you, you know you can fill in with something that will sound fairly sensible and natural to the listener. This is a particularly handy one if you’re performing from memory – if you forget what the “right notes” are, you can fill in with some “good enough” notes until you re-find your place.

So that’s the performance context. There’s plenty more that could be said, and especially about practice techniques that can reduce the chances of making mistakes during a performance in the first place. And my top recommendation on that front would be to check out Gerald Klickstein’s book “The Musician’s Way”, or our past podcast interview with him which we’ll link in the shownotes.

The second context I wanted to talk about is the big picture of your musical life.

Back when we launched Musical U we knew we wanted to put a heavy emphasis on community and personal support – because I’d seen over the years that having good training material was only one part of what determined a musician’s success with musicality training.

In turns out, there are all these challenges around goal-setting, planning, follow-through, and motivation – all the bigger-picture things that actually have a huge influence on whether you succeed or not.

So why do I mention that here? Because a lot of it boils down to how you recover from mistakes. In your musical life overall.

It can feel like a lonely journey learning music, especially if you’re taking it up as an adult or your learning online. Even with a teacher or a few musician friends or a group you perform with – there’s a ton of stuff going on in our heads – planning, analysing, trying to optimise, hope, regret, frustration, doubt, uncertainty… It can be a real mess in there!

And so it’s incredibly important to learn to roll with the punches. And I wanted to help you draw the analogies from the four tips I shared in a performance context to this bigger picture context.

Firstly: The biggest lesson to take on board is – Just keep going! As long as you love music you should keep learning music. Yes, there will be setbacks, yes, you will do things you then view as mistakes. Maybe you chose the wrong instrument, or the wrong teacher, or you start learning a piece and it’s way too hard, or you go down a rabbit-hole trying to master a certain technique before deciding that it really wasn’t that important…

There’s all kinds of things that can cause a moment of “Oh, maybe I should just give up!”

But you must. Just. Keep. Going.

And so what of the four other tips?
Firstly, remember that a mistake is a blip on the overall journey. It’s only a “show-stopper” if you allow it to be. Step back and see it in the overall context of your whole musical life and I guarantee it won’t seem like such a big deal.

Secondly, remember that you are not a robot. If learning music was simply a series of facts to memorise or drills to master we’d be quickly bored. Fortunately music is much more varied and strange and wonderful than that – and the upshot is that our journey through learning music is never going to be a nice, clear, straight line. That’s part of the nature of it.

What about the two practical tips?

Well, if you think about having the idealised version clear in your head, that can be applied to planning. I love the Eisenhower quote that “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything”.

Things are never going to go perfectly to plan in your musical life, but there is enormous benefit in having a clear plan intended in your head.

That lets you resume the intended course after a mistake throws you off and gives you a kind of safe zone where you can see “okay, it’s not the end of the world, I’ve just deviated from the plan a little bit – let’s get back on track.”

And the second tip, to improvise your way back in, is a powerful one here too. The analogy is that you do need to learn and practice this a little bit.

Depending on your personality it might not come naturally to make things up as you go along.

But we can all take that attitude of “Okay, I’ve gone off my intended course… I know that I can do some things in this area for a while and maybe that will help me find my way back on track.”. You learn to find creative ways to keep your musical life going and keep it moving forwards to hopefully reconcile with that intended ideal in your head.

It’s often said among musicians that what you learn in music applies in life – and that becoming a better musician tends to make you a better person too.

And I think this is a clear example of that. Learning to recover gracefully from mistakes during a performance can teach us a lot about how to recover from mistakes in our musical life – and life in general.

So those are my four tips for handling mistakes with grace:

  • Remember that mistakes are small in the overall scheme of things.
  • Start to view mistakes as natural.
  • Have a clear plan of the ideal in your mind.
  • And learn to improvise your way back to that ideal plan.

Would you like a handy cheat sheet with all these tips and a few extra powerful ones? We’ve made one for you and you can get it for free. It’s the perfect thing to glance at before a performance or keep in view during your music practice. Just click the link with this episode or visit the shownotes at MusicalityNow.com.

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