The Art of Making Mistakes

Picture of a train wreckBelieve it or not, there is a fine art to making mistakes when playing the guitar. Mistakes are, to some extent, inevitable. No matter how good you get at the guitar, mistakes will always be part of the experience of playing.

Skilled guitarists make mistakes smoothly. Often their mistakes are hardly noticeable to the listener or, if the mistake was noticeable, the guitarist carries on with playing so quickly that the mistake is soon forgotten about by the listener.

A mistake when playing music can run the spectrum from being a catastrophic shock to the flow of the music (i.e. a ‘train wreck’) to being hardly noticeable. Of course, we all want to have our mistakes lean toward the later. This article gives advice to help make your mistakes closer to the ‘not-noticeable’ side of the spectrum.

First, let’s get one thing clear. You should try to minimize the occurrence of mistakes through effective practice. I’ve already written about how different playing and practicing are. When practicing, mistakes shouldn’t be tolerated. If you find yourself making mistakes, you should determine their cause and work on eliminating them. However, when you are playing, mistakes can be tolerated. In fact, a successful mistake often depends on how quickly you can move on and not fixate on it. So, the following advice applies when you are playing, not when you are practicing.

Emotional Reactions

An important factor in minimizing the effect of mistakes is controlling your emotional reaction to them. If you allow yourself to be hit with a cocktail of negative emotions right after making a mistake, chances are much higher that you’ll have a harder time recovering quickly from the mistake and getting back into the flow of the music.

It’s very easy to allow these emotions to happen when you make a mistake. You might be inclined to feel a mix of disappointment, shame, self-consciousness, worry and frustration. Just remember that these emotions have no place in performing music. They’re detrimental to almost any activity related to the guitar. Instead, try to move on from a mistake as soon as you can. Don’t think about it, dwell on it, or analyze it. Forget about it and just keep playing. Save any analyzing for your next practice session.

If you do end up feeling some negative emotions when a mistake occurs, try to avoid visually expressing those emotions. A grimace, frown or similar look on the face will only emphasize the fact that a mistake occurred. Sometimes, a facial expression can be the only thing that indicates that a mistake happened to a person watching. So, keep your poker face on when you make a mistake. Most likely, nobody noticed the mistake anyway.

Feel free to laugh at your mistakes. Having a quick laugh at a small mistake can be good because it minimizes and expels any tension you might feel from the mistake and it keeps your emotional state light hearted while playing. It’s common for people to laugh at mistakes while on stage. If you are ever watching a concert and you see a couple of the musicians smile and laugh at each other, it’s likely because one of them made a small, hardly noticeable mistake.

Disrupting the Flow of Music

A beginner’s first instinct after making a mistake is often to try and play the botched part again. This is the worst thing you can do when making a mistake. It further disrupts the flow and rhythm of the music.

It’s much better to try and pick back up where you had left off, without repeating anything that’s already been played. The better you become at this, the more quickly you’ll be able to land on your feet after stumbling through a passage. It’s difficult at first, and you might need to let a few beats go by while you get your bearings straight. Stopping for a few beats and coming in at a convenient point in the music is still better than going back to play something again. As you improve at this, you’ll begin to be able to come right back in without even missing a beat after making a mistake.

It’s easier to smoothly pick back up after a mistake when playing with a band. The band will keep going during and after your mistake, and it’s just a matter of finding a point to come back in. If you are playing on your own this becomes more difficult. Mistakes are generally more noticeable and disruptive when playing solo.

Either way, a good strategy for being able to jump back in to playing after a mistake is to keep the song going in your mind–even during the mistake itself or the moments when you are trying to recover. Try to imagine what would be happening in the song during those moments and then choose a point to come back in.

In order to be able to do this, you have to know the song well. The better you know the song, the better you will be able to recover from a mistake. You can’t be dependent on starting from the beginning of a long section in order to find your place. When learning a song, it can be useful to practice starting from various random points in the middle of it just to prepare for having to recover from mistakes.

‘Playing Off’ a Mistake

Another strategy for minimizing the effect of a mistake is to improvise a way to integrate the mistake itself into the flow of music. Doing this takes some quick thinking. It isn’t applicable to certain types of mistakes and, even when it is, it doesn’t always work out. However, I have seen some really cool musical moments happen while playing in bands that started off with someone making a mistake, followed by everyone else going with it and playing off of it.

Playing off a mistake is easiest to do in improvisational styles of music like blues, jazz, funk, jam bands, and so on. If you make a mistake while improvising, you’ve got a couple options. One is to keep going and not end your phrase on the wrong note. In this case, the mistake will soon be forgotten. The other is to repeat the mistake a couple more times, possibly even coming up with a variation of it, before moving on to a new phrase. Doing this makes the mistake seem intentional. Just don’t stop playing for a moment after the mistake. This lets the wrong note that was played hang there, making it more obvious.

It’s more difficult to play off a mistake made in a non-improvised piece of music. I find that a good knowledge of music theory and ability with improvisation helps a lot in these situations.

For instance, if I am playing a classical piece on the guitar I try to always have an awareness of what chord progression each passage is based around. That way, if I get off track I can fall back on at least playing notes that still go with the chord progression. If I make a bigger mistake, like going to an entirely wrong chord and I know I won’t be able to recover quickly or smoothly enough by going straight back to what I was supposed to be playing, I might actually stay on it longer and improvise a short passage around it. This only works for playing solo, though. If I were to make a similar mistake in a band, the best option would be just to get back to what is correct as quickly as possible.

Recovering from mistakes gracefully is a skill that is often overlooked by less experienced guitar players. As a guitarist progresses, they will tend to naturally become better at this sort of thing. The only thing that can be done to practice this is to play for or with other people as much as possible while keeping these things in mind. However, it’s important to not over think when mistakes happen. Simply follow your instincts. When mistakes do happen, try to see them as opportunities to practice your recovery skills.

Photo credit: born1945 / Foter.com / CC BY-SA

Andy Lemaire

Andy Lemaire

Andy Lemaire is a guitar instructor and working musician in Greensboro, NC. He stays busy running a bustling teaching studio and gigging with numerous bands. You can find him on Facebook and Google+.
Andy Lemaire
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