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How to Start Enjoying 'Mistakes'

Making a 'mistake' in musical practice can be a frustrating experience. For some of us, it even triggers negative self-talk - "I'm stupid", "I'm such an idiot", "I suck at this". Though I can't promise that you will be completely cured of this after reading this post, I want to put forward some thoughts on 'mistakes' that may ease the pain and even create enjoyment in future practice sessions.

So - what is a 'mistake'? I believe that a mistake is what happens when you create an outcome that is different from what you intended and/or has undesirable consequences. Trying to swat a fly and accidentally slapping your friend in the face fulfils both criteria. Eating a peanut butter sandwich if you are allergic to peanuts is probably a mistake, even if you fully intended to do it. In a practice situation, we often create outcomes that are different from what we intended - but are there really any undesirable consequences from that outcome? Anything that should dampen enjoyment? I don't believe so. If you feel inclined to disagree, bear with me and see if I can help change your perspective.

Since there are no radically awful consequences from a musical 'mistake', let's use a different word from here onwards. Let's say that creating a different outcome from what you intended is simply an 'attempt'. It's having a go at something that you want to do but haven't mastered yet. Why is it necessary to attempt something before succeeding? Because your brain may not have carried out that task before, so all it can do is take a guess as to how the body needs to be moved and use the outcome of that guess as feedback. It learns what needs to be adjusted and takes another guess. This is an inherently satisfying process to the human mind! Making tangible progress towards a desired goal is a pleasurable experience. Once we release the undesirable connotations of making an attempt that doesn't succeed and embrace the inevitability of that in the learning process, we can start to move towards enjoyment.

Before you run away practising with glee, I want to submit two more points that will help you apply the idea I just described. Firstly, read over the previous paragraph again and notice that I used the phrase 'towards a desired goal'. This implies that you have an intention to achieve something that is desirable to you. This is vital, and can be harder that it sounds. I will go into more depth on this in a future post, but for the rest of this post I will assume that you already have something desirable to learn. Secondly, read over the previous paragraph AGAIN and notice that I used the phrase 'what you intended'. This is also vital. For your brain to use feedback properly, it needs to have at least some representation of the intended outcome. I will also go into more depth on this in a future post, but here are some questions that may help you get started....

1) Do I have a clear visual representation of what I intend to play eg. a fret pattern, guitar tab, chord shape diagram, sheet music, visual demonstration? If not, how can I get one or ask someone to help me? 2) Do I have a clear auditory representation of what I intend to play? Do I know what the chord/song/riff/melody is meant to sound like? Can I play it in my aural imagination? If not, how can I develop that or ask someone to help me? 3) Do I have a clear kinesthetic representation of what I intend to play? Do I know what it feels like when I get it right? Can I imagine moving my body or fingers and getting it right? If not, how can I develop that or ask someone to help me?

I would say it is very rare to have all representations in all three areas before practising something - in most cases, you can start with just one and use that to develop the others. If you are really unsure, a good teacher or musician friend should be happy to help. So, to recap, how does all this help to reduce frustration and increase enjoyment? Frustration at making a 'mistake' occurs when you believe something is going badly, or that you are somehow less adequate because of your errors. Choosing the perspective that making attempts and adjusting is inherent to the process of learning removes that negative connotation. Enjoyment comes from making tangible progress towards a desired goal, and every time you make an attempt and adjust you are making progress. Recognise and celebrate the fact that you are getting a little bit better every time you play, finding things that work and things that don't.


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