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  • Writer's pictureSandy Coursey

How Making Mistakes Set Me Free: Experiences on the Other Side of Perfection

I found myself stuck inside a shell. As a pianist, this shell was made of a fear of failure, of a mistake, and the constant pressure that I’m only as good as my last performance. Consider, then, an artistic landscape where making mistakes were not looked down upon. What brilliant performances might we hear if musicians were not constantly apprehensive or fearful of playing something diverse, unusual, or outright wrong?

During the second year of my Master’s degree, Dr. William Westney, the author of The Perfect Wrong Note, visited our music department. He gave a two part Un-Masterclass in which I was lucky enough to participate, and because of which my perspective on performing has shifted enormously. It began with an interactive group warm-up, including the participants and the audience. Audiences are often thought of as stagnant in classical performance settings, but without them, a performance loses the element of collaboration. Together with the audience, I moved freely but synchronized in beat to music that Dr.Westney had pre-selected in various styles. Each style required different types of movement to express its character— I twirled, jumped, crouched, and waved my arms, intuitively moving with the changes in music. For myself, this would generally be an activity way outside of my comfort zone. Yet, the way Dr.Westney was able to create an environment of trust between all participants helped break down this barrier. He led us through a mirroring exercise where we took turns individually moving to the music, with everyone else in the room mirroring in real time how we moved. At one point, this required all eyes on the room to be on me— a prospect that I tend to find terrifyingly uncomfortable. But as I watch others move just as I did, I realized that they were trusting me as I was trusting them to all work together to move in synchrony. Moreover, there was no value judgement placed on how I moved, because there were no right or wrong answers. I just did. When I transfer this feeling to performance, there is no fear of making a mistake— I am merely dancing fluidly and intuitively through a piece of music. And if a mistake may appear, I will accept it as an integral part of the music that without, may have less meaning.

My experience of moving unreservedly to music in Dr. Westney’s workshop completely changed my perception of performing. Now, I strive to feel the music presently when I perform, instead of echoing back what I have played 1,000 times in the practice room. Of course, it is important to know my repertoire by heart, but I must remind myself that these pieces, nor my performance of them, are not my heart; They are not me. Finding this separation between my art and myself as a person helps with the anxiety of performance, but it also helps with the feeling of connectedness to what I am playing—mistakes and all. There is no art without a separate being to create it. Otherwise perspective, critical awareness, and fearlessness in performance can be lost.

Often, perfection is prioritized and idealized in the classical music world. This can lead to what I call “monkey with cymbals syndrome,” where a performer focuses so much on playing every run of the piece perfectly, that the expressiveness is lost. The possibility of chance and making a mistake is what makes a performance interesting— it keeps the audience on the edge of their seat. The great guitarist, Pepe Romero, said once that there are two types of audiences: The type that come to see a great performer play perfectly; and the type that come to see a great performer make a mistake. “I like to give both what they’re looking for,” he said. Dr. Westney’s solo recital after the Un-Masterclass is a perfect example: No, not every note was correct, but that only made what was correct (aka 99.9%) that much more beautiful— because in that small glimpse of imperfection, I can see intensity, dedication, and the lively breathlessness of that feeling: what will happen next?

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