The Lightbulb Moment: Mistakes Do Not Equal Failure
“Whoops, wrong note! Guess I’ll never be any good at this.”
“Geez, I messed it up again… I just can’t get this right.”
“Wow, I’m terrible and should just put the bass down.”
Hold on, hold on… those are pretty harsh words. As I’m sitting on the other side of a Skype lesson, working with a student, I have to chime in and stop the fight. I offer words of encouragement, tell the student to take a deep breath, and consider how to best intervene. Time and time again, I watch students get derailed in this way. They play something, make a mistake, and react with discouraging words. This negativity manifests itself in the form of derogatory comments, over-emphasis or repetition of the mistake, eye-rolls, head-shaking, and excuses or apologies. No wonder progress has been difficult!
The truth is, this doesn’t just happen during lessons. It happens during practice time. How do I know? Because my inner monologue says the same thing. I’m notoriously hard on myself when it comes to practicing. I get angry, I get frustrated, and I manage to bully myself in a way that is hurtful and absolutely unnecessary. Without a doubt, it is the best way to stunt growth and to turn something joyful into something dreadful.
With years of practice and professional scenarios under my belt, I’ve managed to ease up a bit and have benefited from doing so. I’ve tried to rationalize imperfection as something that is part of the learning process and undeniably human. The ultimate conclusion? Mistakes do not equal failure.
In fact, if there’s any concept worth practicing, it’s that. Learn how to accept a mistake as something small. After all, you’re probably just putting your finger on the wrong fret or forgetting which chord the chorus starts on. The world isn’t ending. You’re not a terrible person. You’re not a bad bass player. More importantly, you can practice, and you can improve. When you’re able to do that, you’ll find it easier to make progress on a larger scale. Plus, you’ll probably like yourself a bit more. Your inner monologue will evolve into a kinder soul.
So, what happens when we make a mistake? We need to recover. We need to press on. Acknowledge it, hear that it’s incorrect, and focus on playing it correctly next time. Don’t consider it a breaking point or force yourself to stop. The more you play, and the more you play correctly, the smaller that mistake gets. For the analytical folks out there, think about it this way:
When you play a triad, you’re playing three notes: the root, third, and fifth. If you only play that triad once and you stop after flubbing the fifth, then your small mistake looms large. Your grade is 66.67/100—technically a failing grade. If you play the same triad ten times and make a total of five mistakes, then the odds are suddenly in your favor. You’ve played 25 out of the 30 notes correctly, resulting in a “B” or 83/100. You passed! Sure, you made a few mistakes, but they did not equate to failure. Then, if you play the triad thirty times and only make five mistakes, you’ve scored an “A,” 94/100. Congratulations! Good thing you didn’t stop when you made your first mistake.
This method might not be your cup of tea, but it really does work… as long as you know that you are making a mistake. Flubs are fine, but playing a C# when you should be playing a C (and doing this over and over again), is just plain wrong. Know the difference. You’ll get into trouble if you’re making mistakes and thinking that you’re playing something correctly. Developing muscle memory and sonic memory is hugely important, but it’s only beneficial when done correctly.
Whether you’re working on scales, trying to play a particular bass line, or making your way through a song, don’t let a simple mistake throw off your mental game. Becoming a better bass player means that you’re dealing with this in a positive and productive way rather than letting it consume you to the point of discouragement. Give yourself a break, change the language that you use, and don’t let a mistake get in the way of success.
Ryan Madora is a professional bass player, author, and educator living in Nashville, TN. In addition to touring and session work, she teaches private lessons and masterclasses to students of all levels. Visit her website to learn more!