Did you know that the microwave oven, popcorn, post-it notes, fireworks, x-ray, and many other wonderful things that exist today, came into existence as a result of a mistake?

The mistake is one of those things that we, as a culture, are used to judging as bad, when actually it is inherently neither good nor bad.  I find it much more empowering to make up my own mind about whether a mistake is good or bad.  What is a mistake?  Taking a short time to consider this, my (probably somewhat clumsy) definition is:

the result of an action turning out different than intended.

Looking through other definitions on the internet I found:

An act or judgement that is misguided or wrong. (Google)

An error or fault resulting from defective judgment, deficient knowledge, or carelessness.  (thefreedictionary.com)

An action, decision, or judgment that produces an unwanted or unintentional result (Cambridge English Dictionary)

This last one is the least judgemental and closest to my view on mistakes, as well as being more in line with the growing number of educators and employers valuing mistake-making, and therefore encouraging students and employees to take risks and find new ways of doing things.  When we are willing to make mistakes, we allow (or even celebrate) the possibility of learning through failure, and also the possibility of an unexpected yet positive result.

When it comes to learning, performing and teaching music, I’ve found that being open to the value of mistakes has led to wonderful experiences, both in terms of creating music and learning new things about music.  This has happened more in my experience of teaching than in any other situation, though I would say that there has been a ripple effect that is felt in the rest of my life too.

These are some of the ways that mistake-making plays a part in my teaching experience:

  • A student plays an incorrect note or chord, so I ask them if they heard anything in what they played that was different to what was supposed to be played. If they did, I ask them whether they liked it or not.  If they didn’t hear it, I would play it for them the way they had played it and see what they think of it.
  • In a group class, when people make mistakes it often means that the mistake happens at the same time as other students play it correctly. From that experience, we can find out if we like the combination of those chords or notes being played at the same time.  What might otherwise be a clash of notes or chords can sometimes be an interesting or beautiful harmony.
  • My favourite memory of a student making a mistake happened when my student Elyse was learning the riff of Sweet Child o’ Mine. The way I teach it uses open and fretted notes.  Elyse had become quite good at it, but in this particular lesson she unconsciously played all the fretted notes exactly one fret higher than intended.  This produced a very interesting (verging on scary) sound, but when I asked her if she had heard it she had no idea.  After all, most of us can relate to sometimes seeing or hearing what we expect rather than what actually happened.  Fortunately I realised how she had done it and was able to replicate it and this new piece of music ended up becoming a much loved instrumental titled “Creepy Child o’ Mine” which will be featuring on the next UFO album being released later this year.

I hope you can see in these situations how valuable the experience of making mistakes can be for the students and the teacher, but I’ll try to make it clearer.  I think seeing a mistake in this way holds an important key for a person being a musician as well as a student.  Most musicians are still students, in that they keep learning, but at what point does a music student become a musician?  I don’t think it has anything to do with whether or not you are making money by playing music.  The way I see it, a musician is someone who has clear independent thoughts about what they are doing musically and can take action accordingly.  They know what they like and what they dislike and have the power to change it (if they dislike any aspect of the music) to something they like more.  In certain settings this is constrained by the leadership of a band leader or conductor, but the musician can always at least have an opinion on the music they are creating and, to differing extents, can take action accordingly.

This type of approach goes further than just in the context of music education.  It really has the power to affect a student’s self-esteem and emotional development.  When a person can learn to see a mistake as an opportunity, become clear about what they like and dislike and know how they can use what they like and change what they dislike, it can go a long way toward resilience and effectiveness, not to mention happiness.

I think utilising mistakes in this way as part of the learning process is something that has been missing in music education, and is an aspect of the development of the Uke4Kids program that I am really enjoying.

Here is a song about the value of mistakes that was written by Liam (a former Uke4Kids teacher) and his students during a Uke4Kids class last year.  This song is now included in the current Uke4Kids method book and is being learnt by many students.

Mistakes are great