Making mistakes in musical performance: should we aim for perfection?

Making mistakes in performance: bad or good?I worked with a student recently who has been having problems with mistakes onstage, even in music the student knows really well. My student described the mistakes as coming out of nowhere, and creating a sudden loss of focus that resulted in further errors. The student wanted help from me to eliminate the mistakes.

Would you have asked for the same thing? It is an understandable desire: I mean, nobody likes making mistakes while performing, especially when they lead to further loss of focus. Dealing with the mistakes would cause the other problems (loss of focus) to disappear on their own. Surely that seems like a great idea…

But what if the mistakes aren’t really the problem? What if we are really suffering from a completely different problem: a mindset issue?

Musical mistakes and perfectionism

Last month I attended a training day run by BAPAM[1] on anxiety and heard a great talk on perfectionism by psychologist Dr Radha Kothari. One of the markers suggested by Dr Kothari for an unhealthy perfectionism was a performer’s attitude towards mistakes: are they something to learn from, or something to be avoided? If we believe that mistakes are something to avoid, then we are likely to engage in behaviours that are unhelpful: we will get unduly nervous before performing out of fear of the mistakes occurring; we may start avoiding practice sessions; we may notice physical tension building when we are coming up to the passages where we think we are most likely to ‘fall off’.

Mistakes matter when we hold the belief we are aiming for perfection; that is to say, when we believe that it is possible to give a perfect performance. Mistakes are clearly not included in anything perfect, so logically, mistakes take us away from perfection and towards failure.

Except… perfection isn’t really possible. As an example, just think of how many recordings have been made and performances given of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Many of them will have been good; some will have been great; a number will have been excellent. But can we really label any one performance as perfect? Does that even make sense as a concept?!

Perfectionism as a habit of thought

There are lots of different (and helpful) models out there to describe this kind of thinking. Carol Dweck made the idea of ‘mindset’ famous, and even my son’s high school hands out material about the difference between a ‘fixed’ and a ‘growth’ mindset. There are a lot of good posts out on the web about self-limiting beliefs (here’s one from life coach Tim Brownson). Back in 1910 FM Alexander dealt with the topic, and didn’t mince his words. he called this kind of thinking ‘trifling habits of thought’ and said:

the majority of people fall into a mechanical habit of thought quite as easily as they fall into the mechanical habit of body which is the immediate consequence. [2]

The implication of his statement is that our beliefs, if they are merely ‘trifling’ and ‘mechanical’, are utterly changeable. They aren’t giant pits or bear traps; they are potholes. If we can fall into them, we can lift ourselves back up out of them and keep walking. We can notice the belief, and then change it.

My student’s attitude towards mistakes was an indicator of a mindset – a belief about perfection – that I suspected was not helpful. So I asked a question that suggested a change of mindset: “Which would you rather: perfection or excellence?” My student’s face lit up instantly. One change of word, and everything changed. My student reported a vastly increased fluency and enjoyment while playing, which was still evident (and increasing) weeks later.

If you strive for excellence, mistakes are expected. They are something to learn from. They are a source of information, and an occasional bump in the road. Nothing more significant than that.

So how will you view your mistakes today?


[1] British Association for Performing Arts Medicine. They’re fantastic.

[2] FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance, Irdeat ed., p.52.

Image by Stuart Miles,