The Freedom to Make Mistakes

By Madeline Bruser

June 25, 2012

When I was 29 and preparing to move back to New York from California, I decided to raise money for the venture by playing a series of recitals called Concerts à la Mode. I rented the Berkeley Piano Club and solicited contributions of desserts from friends and local bakeries, which we served after each performance. The series consisted of three different programs, performed two weeks apart within the month of July. I had never performed that much repertoire within so short a time, but I wanted to try it.

After a critic gave the second concert a good review in the San Francisco Chronicle, the final performance, an all-Chopin recital, was sold out. But I didn’t have enough time to prepare. I still remember the feeling of being up there in the light onstage and playing through the entire program in a state of panic, mixed with sheer chutzpah. Two of my parents’ friends left immediately afterward, apparently to avoid the embarrassment of having to talk about my performance. I made a lot of money that night, which helped with my move to New York. But more importantly, I learned something from that concert. I was careful after that to give myself more time to prepare performances, and to not bite off more repertoire than I could chew.

Permission to Fail

Performing is always a risk, and especially when we’re young, we need to take risks and to make mistakes, in order to find out what works for us. No advice from others can substitute for firsthand knowledge.

I’m sure my parents were uncomfortable that evening at the Berkeley Piano Club. But I have fond memories of them giving me lots of room to make mistakes growing up. I always had the feeling that they loved me and knew I had to find things out for myself. Looking back, I can see that my parents’ attitude toward my mistakes was one of their biggest gifts to me. They gave me permission to fail. And they trusted that I would eventually succeed by learning from my own experience.

Childhood Mistakes

My parents had been watching me make mistakes since I was very small. When I was six, I thought that getting dressed for school took too much time every morning. So I decided I would solve that problem by putting on my school dress at night and sleeping in it. When I came down to breakfast the next morning in a very wrinkled dress, my mother said, “What did you do, sleep in your dress?” “No,” I lied. But I knew she was onto me. I also knew she was too amused to get angry with me. And of course, I learned that my idea of sleeping in my dress didn’t work out.

Our Adult Standards

My mother may have thought I was cute for sleeping in my dress, and even for lying about it, but when we are adults, our audience may not think it’s cute if we show up in a wrinkled concert gown and give them an unprepared performance. In fact, when the stakes are high, we expect ourselves to be prepared to the max, and we often slip into harsh self-judgment if our performance doesn’t live up to our high standards.

But the fact is, mistakes don’t stop at age 18 or 21. We keep growing throughout adulthood, and a lot of that growth happens through learning from the mistakes we make.

How can we bring some of the lightness and humor that comes with recalling our childhood mistakes into our serious lives as adult musicians? How can we develop a healthy perspective on our mistakes in the professional arena?

Occupational Hazards

A good first step is to acknowledge the extreme challenge of being a performing musician. Scientists have said that playing a musical instrument is the most complex neuromuscular activity that people engage in. This statement makes total sense to us. In practicing our instrument, we face enormous athletic demands along with the equally huge task of hearing all the sounds we’re producing, plus handling the emotional responses to the music that are flooding our system. On top of all this, when we perform, we add stage fright to the mix, challenging our capacities to the limit.

Friendliness Toward Ourselves

It can be very helpful to take a moment to appreciate this mind-boggling challenge, and to appreciate how brave we are in taking it on. This simple acknowledgment of our valiant efforts can help us breathe a little easier as we go about our practicing and performing lives—we can relax and accept the fact that making mistakes is inevitable.

We make so many different kinds of mistakes. We play wrong notes. We have memory lapses. We misjudge how much preparation time we need. We over-practice to the point of exhaustion, leaving us with no energy to give an inspired performance. And we make faux pas in communicating with people in our profession whose trust we value. Mistakes are human, and no one escapes making them.

However, we do have a choice about how we handle our minds when we do something we’re not proud of. Do we judge ourselves? Do we pretend it didn’t happen? Or do we look straight at our pain with a sympathetic attitude toward ourselves and try to learn from what we’ve done?

The Crucial, Often Overlooked Point

The most helpful thing I know of in facing a mistake is to realize that the reason we feel bad about it is that we care. We care about how we participate in society as performers and as human beings. We want to give our best, and to have a rewarding experience onstage and in our lives. This heart of caring is always there, underneath our feelings of guilt or embarrassment. And making contact with this caring place in ourselves can soften us  and dissolve a lot of our self-judgment and anxiety.

Overcoming Negative Conditioning

Perhaps people in your past have judged you harshly for your failings, and you have difficulty getting past their judgments. It’s easy to lose faith in yourself when others have treated you badly—in fact, many musicians suffer from debilitating stage fright that stems from their experience with abusive parents or teachers.

Nevertheless, if you take some time to look deeply into yourself, past the judgments of others, and even past the pain you have suffered, you can find within you the desire to do well and to fulfill your potential. That desire is so good. It is the most basic and human thing in you. Take a moment to appreciate it and to feel how strong it is. It will help you realize that it is fundamentally because you are good, and because you care, that you feel bad when you fail or make a mistake.

Start With Small Steps

Although this caring place in us is tender and soft, it contains great power. As soon as we contact it we feel nourished and strengthened by it—we recognize it as healthy and full of positive energy. If we can make a habit of appreciating our caring intentions, we can increase our strength and positive energy for performance.

Start with small steps. The next time you find yourself judging yourself for making a mistake in practicing, remind yourself that you just want to do well, to make music and express yourself. Give yourself that moment to relax and appreciate yourself, and watch what happens inside you. Then start again and see how that positive energy affects your playing or singing.

Carrying Your Heart Onstage

Each time you remember to appreciate your own goodness you are encouraging it to shine. When it’s time to perform, you can let it illuminate the space for everyone present.

To do that, take a moment before walking onstage to appreciate your own bravery. Just stop and notice your fear, and then extend warmth to yourself by remembering how brave you are to go out there. This warmth will naturally flow into the music you make, and your audience will feel it.

A pianist once called me from the West Coast to ask for advice a few days before she was going to play a big concerto with an orchestra. I recommended that she take a moment to appreciate her own bravery right before walking onstage. She called me later to tell me that people swarmed up to her after her performance and said they’d never heard anything like it—they were so moved by her playing. Because she opened her heart to herself, her heart came through in her performance.

Fearlessness Begins at Home

So the next time you catch yourself feeling bad about a mistake you’ve made or a challenge you’re facing with a piece of music, stop to appreciate how much you care. If you make a habit of opening your heart in this way while you’re alone and feeling safe, your courage will grow, and it will be easier to risk opening your heart onstage. That is fearless performing.

I wish you much joy and success with making music.

Madeline Bruser

P.S.  If you’re ready to have someone bring out the amazing performer that’s inside of you, click for a free consultation with me.

Q & A of the Month

I tried what you suggested in last month’s article—tuning into the feelings of disappointment, uncertainty, and longing—and it did help me play better. But I don’t think I felt confident doing that. How do we get from feeling lost and uncertain to feeling confident?

Confidence comes from getting so familiar with feeling shaky and uncertain that you begin to feel real power in that energy. It’s a person’s vulnerability that always moves us in a performance. It catches our heart. Each time you accept and face these feelings you’re manifesting courage; you’re not turning away from the energy within you, but you’re allowing it to flow. 

 I suggest that when you try this technique again, you notice the quality of the energy in your body. You may label the feeling as “disappointment,” “longing,” or “uncertainty.” But these feelings have very potent visceral energy. It’s when we shut them out that our energy stops flowing.

The more you get familiar with the free flow of this kind of energy, the more power you will find in it. Then you develop a very real and deep confidence—the confidence to be completely yourself.