What Musicians Can Learn From Mistakes

Do you have a hard time recovering after making a mistake in a performance or audition?  Do mistakes distract you and cause you to beat yourself up and have trouble “staying in” the performance?  If you answered “yes” to these questions, you are not alone!

Here is what a professional cellist said about a recent performance:

“After I make a mistake or I miss a shift, I get flustered and have the tendency to lose my focus.  I start holding back and many times I start making more mistakes.  After the performance—no matter how well the concert has gone—I am frustrated and all I can think of is that mistake.”

All musicians want to perform well and all musicians make mistakes.  Some musicians are able to bounce back quickly, yet others want to perform well so badly that they let mistakes get under their skin and undermine their confidence, the rest of their performance, and future performances as well.

How musicians think about mistakes has a major impact on how they feel as they prepare and perform in high-stakes situations.  Dr. James E. Loehr, author of several books on mental and physical training for peak performance, suggests a winning way to think about mistakes:

“Mistakes are a necessary part of learning.  No mistakes—no learning.  I’ll make my mistakes fearlessly and aggressively.   I’m not playing it safe, holding back or looking for excuses.  I’m going for it—I’ll accept whatever happens and move on.  I don’t fear mistakes; I learn from them.”

In performance, after making a mistake or having a memory slip, asking and answering the following questions will help you work to move beyond the mistake and benefit from it.

  1. What could I have done differently?
  2. What can I learn from this?
  3. What can I take away from this situation that will help me next time?

How performers think about mistakes determines the impact making mistakes can have on them and their performances.  Remember that every mistake is an opportunity to grow, to learn, and to become a better performer.

Leave me a comment and let me know how you deal with mistakes in your performances.   I would love to hear from you and answer any questions you might have.

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  1. Dennis G. Jones says:

    I can’t consider myself young but all the above applies to me. I performed an offertory (alto sax -me accompanied by 2 trumpets and an organ) in church today. Everything went beautifully, pitch, vibrato, dynamics, and emotion but I hit one wrong note and for me the entire performance was ruined. My 2nd trumpet player told me afterwords I recovered very quickly but I feel awful. I makes me want to just put the horn away for good when this happens.

    • Dr. Diana Allan says:

      Dennis, I can hear that this article really has a message for you and many other performers who feel the same way that you do. Like I said above, how we think about mistakes makes a huge impact on our attitude and on our performances. What I would like for you to shift your focus to is how you describe the performance: “Everything went beautifully…” Before you let this mistake go, review the questions above and see if there is anything to be learned by the experience. That one wrong note cannot undo the musical and expressive way you played today unless you let it! Learn what you can from this experience and then, let it go and pick up that horn and play beautifully again tomorrow!

  2. Daniel Johnson says:

    I just recently had a performance that really upset me. I thought it was such a bad performance, but everyone said it was one of the best performances I had. I got really upset about it because I made several mistakes. After the performance was over, I cried for several hours. I am about to graduate with a degree in organ performance. I really want to go to grad school, but i’m afraid I wont get accepted because i’ll make too many mistakes. What do I do?

    • Dr. Diana Allan says:

      Daniel, thanks for writing. I know how upsetting it can be to work so hard and then be disappointed by a performance. Getting as upset as you describe sounds as if you may struggle with the expectations you place on yourself and possibly a fear of failure or embarrassment. Many performers have strict expectations about their performance and experience fear of falling short. When preparing for your grad auditions you will want to work through some of these issues. Although it seems impossible at times, we can change and our performance can improve! Please feel free to contact me directly if you would like to talk about this.

  3. Awoyemi Akinola says:

    Sir, I am undergoing training, as a sports psychology in one of the Nigeria University, precisely Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Nigeria. I am working on mental Strategies and peak performance, I will be grateful if you can help me with materials on current literature reviews. Thank you, Sir.

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