Music Aesthetics

Excellent Mistakes

The dichotomy that musicians face when approaching music is one like this:

  • Do I strive to make no mistakes, or
  • do I strive to make less mistakes, and be embarrassed about them?

One man’s dichotomy is another man’s plunder. We often feel, as musicians called to excellence, that the only way we can communicate effectively to our audience is to “clean up” any part of the composition that does not belong. We strive to commit the best balance between the composer’s intention and our interpretation… which doesn’t involve mistakes.

…Or does it?

What makes music so fascinating is that, even though we have computer technology, sampling, and all the nuances of a supercomputer harnessed in our hands, people are still playing music. Organic, living, breathing, walking circulatory systems are still preferred over the seemingly indispensable expertise and perfection of a computer.

Real musicians are preferred because they bring “excellent mistakes” to the table; these mistakes make all the difference in our world. Some of these mistakes include not doing what the composer said, or doing something in addition to what the composer has clearly said. Sometimes it is a level of interpretation that requires you to make mistakes. Sometimes, the mistake is pushing a tempo, just to the cusp of your control, and you miss a few things. Sometimes, it is speaking with emotional intensity, but ad-libbing a part of the libretto.

I am not advocating revising texts, or for being amateur/lax in our preparation of music. Every musician should “work out their craft with fear and trembling” knowing that they should strive to do what is best. But the gift of “excellent mistakes” comes when a artist works hard to play what he/she knows best, and doing so through mistakes, mishaps, misfortunes, or slips.

I am reminded of a concert I saw at one of the schools I attended where one of the finest pianists in the world played a dazzling performance of a Mozart sonata. In the last movement, there was a point where this performer “missed” an entering passage via a glitch in the fingering. Without missing a beat and panicking, the artist lifted their whole hand, kept going with the other hand, and had produced one of the finest bounces back from their misfortune. I remember being energized and delighted, and I enjoyed this sonata even more after that mistake. In fact, I have a recording of it that I prefer over the many “immaculate” recordings I have on file.

I was told by a teacher once that a jury is, “Not about how perfectly you play a piece of music, but how well you play it through your mistakes.”

Remember that being a musician is about the integrity of your mistakes. If you make a mistake, don’t feel embarrassed; be encouraged insomuch as you are dedicated to making something out of that mistake.


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