The two different kinds of mistakes

Musicians (particularly music students) sometimes get hung up on mistakes. "You played so well!" "Yeah, but I messed up on that one part."

Especially since so much of the music we hear these days is sanitized and computerized and auto-tuned within in an inch of its life, we lose perspective on our humanity as musicians and hold "no mistakes" as the standard we aspire to.

Wildflowers are neither flaws nor errors. (Photo: Per Ola Wiberg)This standard creates problems in learning and playing, because we're only looking out for wrong notes and lose our connection with musicality and emotion. We aren't in touch with how comfortable we are with a piece, we're only thinking about getting through it for the sake of getting through it. Play, mess up, go back to the beginning, play mess up, go back to the beginning.

What's more, fearing mistakes can create psychological reactance: we are trying so hard not to mess up, that we mess up. This is a negative feedback loop that affects students from beginner to professional.

It is true that a bad habit is difficult to unlearn. There are certain kinds of mistakes that become bad habits. Ironically, these are often created by the very attitude that seeks to avoid any mistakes. Steamrollering a piece of music with unrealistic expectations leads to rushing, tension, frustration, fatigue, all of which foster the type of mistakes that tend to stick. Let's call these errors.

On the other hand, there are mistakes that happen simply because you're a human being striving to accomplish something. These imperfections occur and can be brushed off with no lasting impact. We'll call these flaws.

The following table shows the difference between errors and flaws in several common circumstances:

Situation Flaw Error
writing an essay typo drawing a conclusion not supported by the facts
public speaking saying "um" saying something offensive
driving a car swerving around debris speeding through a red light
getting an injury bumping your shin on the coffee table hurting your back as a result of weak muscles and poor posture when lifting boxes
eating a couple extra cookies eating ice cream when you know you're lactose intolerant
healing scab scar


The relationship between each flaw and error is imprecise at best, and one could argue that any mistake is a result of carelessness or excessive speed. But there is a difference, which is that all of the flaws are generally things that could happen at any time, while the problems created by the errors are avoidable or caused by long-term issues. 

In music, flaws show up when you lose yourself in what you're doing, and when a piece of music is unfamiliar. They are superficial, and can mostly be ignored. They are the human element showing up in your otherwise mindful, methodical work. Sometimes they appear when you get tired, and as such can be indicators that it's time to give the instrument a rest.

Errors, on the other hand, flourish in tense situations where there isn't time to think. When you're going too fast, you have no time to exercise good judgment and your work suffers. "I always mess up at this part. I keep trying but I can't get it right." You can bet these ingrained errors, these deeper issues will show up in a performance situation as tension or, inevitably, mistakes.

What to do about it? Slow down, relax, be mindful, and take the music in small sections. Let go of the flaws, and do everything you can to avoid the errors.