So, you (the student) are well on your way toward making musical
progress. You are practicing diligently, daily and accurately. It has
been taught to you that:
A) The muscle memory “memorizes” every movement, and the quality
thereof (jerky, smooth, relaxed, tight, etc). And that, any mistakes
you practice, probably become automatic habits too. To practice
correctly becomes very important, even key to your practicing at home.
B) Consistency is important. This means consistent daily practice,
and also consistent quality of work. Your attention must be focused, to
assure that your joints are relaxed as you play, that you maintain your
good form, in order to “teach” your muscle memory the correct way to
And yet, there is a problem with this model. As absolutely necessary
as it is to practice correctly and with consistency, there is a certain
mental rigidity which can develop from lack of freedom. One can feel
boxed in psychologically, and practicing becomes a chore instead of
joyous. Above all, there is a fear of failure, particularly in
performance situations: What if one “Messes up” and makes a mistake?
Uh-oh! Disaster strikes? Particularly when “on the spot”, in public?
Nerves begin to flutter at the very thought, never mind the actual
experience. And the very thought of practicing so cleanly and so well,
can also be what fosters such nervousness.
There must be a solution to this. And of course, there are many
solutions to every problem. It would be fun to read what other music
teachers do with their students in this same situation, and I am not
suggesting that my method is the only way to go. However, I also am
sharing my own way of working with this, in the hopes that this article
will spawn further conversation, among teachers and students alike. It
would be interesting and fun to read all the various ways of tackling
this same issue!
What is my method of conquering stage fright and helping my students to overcome the fear of failure?
Yes, you got that one right. Practice making mistakes. On purpose.
No, I am not kidding.
Students look at me as if I’ve gone crazy, the moment I even suggest it. Particularly, my young students.
But once they get going, they have a blast at it.
And then something very interesting begins to happen.
The door to freedom has been opened, and particularly my child
students begin to improvise. Let freedom ring! Let it sing! It works!
Actually, every time. I cannot think of even one case in which a child
did not begin to improvise, after practicing deliberate mistakes, not
in all my twenty-four years of teaching.
Adult students are naturally resistant at first too, but then they
settle in with it. While adults may not be as inclined to improvise as
readily as children, in my experience they also do find the permission
to make mistakes psychologically freeing. And of course, the ensuing
laughter is very healthy for the student-teacher relationship, just as
it is for the psychological freedom carried into the student’s
practicing at home.
Once we have confidence that it really is okay to make mistakes, we
become much more free artistically, and therefore, more expressive as
players or singers.
When performing, consider the knee-jerk reaction to playing a
juicy-sounding mistake, in public. Yikes! Grimaces take over the face
like a tragi-commedia mask, and training to hide that grimace still may
or may not relax the performer, from within. So the question becomes,
how do students learn to deal with making a mistake, on stage, and in
In the lessons and in the practice room, that’s where.
For a solid two months before any recital my students are preparing
for, I always have them playing at least three mistakes for me in each
movement or piece, on purpose.
Thereafter, we begin the theme of working with the mistake instead of through it.
A) The student makes a mistake, and practices continuing right on
playing the piece, as if nothing had happened. This is good practice
for maintaining one’s composure, in public.
B) Improvising around the theme of a mistake can be a creative way
to cover up a glaringly “Wrong” sound. To practice improvising around
the theme of a mistake is to keep a cool head in public situations.
C) To repeat a mistake is to create symmetry and balance in a piece,
as if it had been written right onto the page, in the composer’s own
hand. Surprise: Mistakes can often sound quite nice, sometimes even
D) Once in a concert I attended, the soloist played a mistake. She
did a surprising thing: She made yet another much worse one, right in
the next bar, quite intentionally. She lifted up her instrument and
practically shot that next mistake right at the audience! And of
course, everybody laughed. This, incidentally, was a world-caliber
virtuosa player, and was her way of cutting through the enormously high
pressures particularly coming with being a virtuosa player. After all,
virtuosi are humans too, and everybody makes mistakes. No exceptions!
Of course, as goes without saying, such deliberate mistake-making is
only done after the student has already mastered the basics of good
technical and musical form, has learned how to practice well, and has
made good progress. I would never attempt such a thing with a new
student: I only do this after the student and I have come to know each
other well, and the student feels relaxed in the lessons.
We all strive for the highest standards possible, especially when we
are as in love with our music as we professional musicians are. There
can be no arguing that aiming for utmost beauty, the best technical
proficiency, and practicing with meticulous intention is the only way
to go. There is not a doubt about it and the purpose of this article
would never be to argue with that high standard, which the artist
inside demands of all of us.
However, there also may be a time and a place when, in a very safe
setting, to make deliberate mistakes is not only freeing, but opens up
new creative doors. In the safe context of the lesson or the practice
room, making deliberate mistakes can help to cure the fear of failure,
conquer stage nerves, aid our presence of mind in handling public
bloopers, and may just be one cornerstone of all healthy practicing
habits. The new-found freedom may even open up new artistic depth and
improvisatory exploration. Have fun with this!
—Drina B, Novato, CA