Reimagining Musical Mistakes as Invitations to Growth

Fixing one failure can raise your entire level of musicianship, especially when you apply the solutions to similar difficulties moving forward. Here’s how to do it.

By Scott Flavin | From the March-April 2022 issue of Strings magazine

From an early age, students are taught that mistakes are bad, that failure is an embarrassment and something to be ashamed of. Unfortunately, this attitude toward mistakes denies students, as they learn and grow, an important lesson: Your mistakes can be your greatest teachers, if you find strategies to grow from them.

Stop thinking that mistakes are personal failings and appreciate that they can help you improve. So, in fact, mistakes are wonderful! Think about it—fixing one failure can raise your entire level, especially when you apply the same solutions to parallel difficulties moving forward. Here’s how to do it. 

Step 1: Everything’s fine… isn’t it?


Awareness is the most important element. Sometimes you might ignore the pain of admitting your mistakes, seeing them as a sign of failure; in other instances, you may simply overlook them. There are a number of ways you can increase the strength of your perception on your own—listening outside of yourself as you play is the most beneficial way. As my Frost School of Music faculty colleague (and former principal trumpet of the Chicago Symphony) professor Craig Morris puts it, “Get used to putting one of your ears on the practice room wall, and listening for what is coming out of your instrument.” 

The idea is that you shift your focus from the action of “doing” to listening to what you are producing. This is not easy to do initially, so a great first step is to record yourself and listen back; I recommend listening to your recording at least three times—you may be surprised at how much information slipped by the first couple of playbacks. Listening critically at a high level takes tremendous focus, but like all other skills, can be improved through practice (thoughtful repetition). Don’t get discouraged, start with where you are, reserve practice time for listening to yourself, and you will build the depth of your ability to discern problems or mistakes.


Build Your Awareness Checklist 

It can be overwhelming to attempt to listen for all musical elements at once, so take a phrase or short section and play it, listening for one of the following at a time:

  • How is the intonation? 
  • Rhythm?
  • Tone? 
  • Phrasing? 
  • Dynamics? 
  • Stylistic elements?

Don’t worry yet about trying to analyze everything fully in depth or implementing solutions; it is enough to begin to broaden your awareness, focus, and listening skills. As you build your awareness, you will eventually be able to listen for more than one element at a time.

Step 2: What’s the problem? 


Now that you’ve heard that something’s wrong, what is the issue? It might feel overwhelming to try to clarify just what the problem is. However, starting with major categories and filtering through them can help you find answers. Three large categories might be tone, pulse, and musicality. And these three can be broken down into more detailed elements:


  • Tone: Intonation, tone quality, dynamics, color, vibrato
  • Pulse: Rhythm, tempo, phrase length
  • Musicality: Phrasing, style, communication, emotion

It will also be helpful to view your mistakes from a technical point of view. There are three major technical areas that might contain the problem: left hand, right hand, and coordination of left hand and right hand. Within those three large areas, you can break them down further:

  1. Left hand
    • Intonation—finger placement within position (hand frame); shifts; extensions; contractions
    • Tone—vibrato; contact point of finger (tip vs. pad); finger placement (weight, attack, release)
  2. Right hand
    • Bow tone—arm weight; bow speed; bow placement (sounding point, contact point)
    • Bow changes
    • String crossings
    • Articulations
  3. Coordination of left hand and right hand
    • Who leads? Left or right?

Apart from technical issues, you should also notice physical issues, including body mechanics, tension, and inefficient motions.

Step 3: Figure out solutions



You are of course the product of your teachers, so think back to the kinds of solutions and ideas your teachers worked on with you. Also, you live in a remarkable age where so many specific technical answers are available through YouTube, teacher websites, blogs, and more. Do not underestimate your own ability to problem solve. When you have become aware of your mistakes and analyzed them, experimenting with your own solutions can be highly effective.

Step 4: Do it!


How do you implement your solutions? Practice! As always, however, practice smart. Start with small, digestible bits, make sure you are intensely focused, and be consistent in your practice.

Also, be realistic: don’t expect to fix all of your mistakes immediately—some take more time than others to solve. The most important thing to remember is that being aware of your failures can help you on the path to a higher level of playing.

Learn from Your Mistakes

  • Increase your personal feedback: focus on what is coming out of your instrument
  • Work in small sections to build your self-awareness
  • Analyze problems and categorize them
  • Find solutions (teachers past and present, online resources, YouTube, books, etc.)
  • Practice smart