Learn From “Mistakes”

Oftentimes, we are our own hardest critics. I think most, if not all, of us are in pursuit of the “perfect” playing experience or improvised solo. If we miss a note or phrase, it can feel embarrassing or even humiliating.

I know—because I make a lot of mistakes! However, if I’m not making mistakes, I’m not working hard enough. What?? How can that make sense when we are consistently taught to shoot for a perfect score and play everything correctly?

Opportunities to Learn

To be clear, I am not talking about being lazy or neglecting your craft. I am talking about taking chances when you play. To some, a “mistake” might be a different interpretation, a dynamic marking, inserting a trill or growl, bending a note … or maybe playing a note you didn’t mean to while you were improvising, or you made a strange sound and you want to figure out how to do it again.

Some might call these mistakes, but I call them opportunities to find out more about your instrument and personal creativity. I am not saying you should raise your hand in triumph if you crack a note, squeak or misplay a phrase; rather, what I am saying is don’t be afraid of making a mistake. Learn from them. Reach for the goal but learn from the journey.

Passion, Not Perfection

I saw the Village Vanguard Orchestra in New York City recently, and as awesome as the group sounded, I heard “mistakes.” On the road with Dave Matthews Band, I make and hear “mistakes” all night long. On the road with Bela Fleck & the Flecktones, you guessed it, more “mistakes.”

Mistakes are universal! Even the greatest, most virtuosic performers will never play perfectly. It’s the humanity in the music, not the perfection that stands the test of time. It’s the searching and the passionate performance that draws us in, not its perfection on paper. It’s interesting that when a performer struggles a little, sometimes the audience is more appreciative. Maybe, just maybe, we’re all human after all.

About the author

Jeff Coffin

Jeff Coffin is a three-time Grammy Award winning saxophonist, composer, educator, and author. He has been a band member of Dave Matthews Band since 2008.  Jeff also teaches at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. Jeff has published “The Saxophone Book,” co-wrote “The Articulate Jazz Musician” with Caleb Chapman, and released “The Road Book” in late 2019. Jeff is a Yamaha and D’Addario Performing Artist and Clinician.  Visit jeffcoffin.com and earuprecords.com for more information.