No Mistakes

I recently started singing lessons with an opera singer friend of mine. 

The first surprising thing I learned is that I’ve been a secret soprano this whole time—I’ve just been too afraid to get near the high notes.

The second surprising thing I learned is that the modern pedagogy of singing is more woo than expected. There’s spiritual depth in its philosophy, a Bob Ross-sort of acceptance. 

The third surprising thing is that it applies to more than just singing. 

I’m an amateur when it comes to this, so take my description as vague strokes attempting to hint at a bigger picture. Like someone who glimpsed an elephant for the first time exclaiming, “Wow, they’re bigger than a house!”, they’d be wrong, but right in an interesting direction when the biggest animal you’ve ever seen is a horse.

The practice of singing is primarily a psychological game. If people are afraid of giving a speech in front of a crowd, they’re doubly afraid of singing in front of them. Many people are afraid of singing even if the only person who can hear them is themselves. So when we do sing, it is a practice of bravery: working with anxiety, the mortal fear of being heard, and doing the secret incantation to dispel the tension that builds up every few minutes or so.

(The secret incantation is bzzzrzrt. They’re called “lip trills”, and you do them by buzzing your lips while making noise. You can buzz along to a whole song, and I can promise you that if you sing after that, you will sound better.)

The core of my teacher’s philosophy is that all sounds made with relaxation and a lack of judgment are wins. Even when it sounds bad in the moment, it’s progress in the mental game of singing.

There are no mistakes in this paradigm. There are things to avoid, like techniques that damage your vocal cords. But when you’re aiming for a note and miss, that isn’t a mistake, it’s expected. Shoot for the E. Even if you miss, you land among the sharps! The voice isn’t a machine where we put in an input and get a consistent output. As much as singers might try to be like a piano, we are not a piano. The voice is wild and comes on its own terms. 

What we can do is set up the conditions for it to thrive.

It took me some time to understand what he was saying. It’s counterintuitive. I didn’t realize it was possible to see “missing a note” as anything other than a mistake, in singing or otherwise.

It’s contrary to standard pedagogy in music (or anything else, for that matter). Even if you’re a singer, this is probably different to what you’re used to, too.

My musical background is the usual: classical piano, where every week for a decade I would fret about the day my strict Russian piano teacher would tell me how I’ve disappointed her. Each week I would fail again at being perfect. There was never an amount of practicing that was good enough. All missed notes were flinch-worthy, and the dry and occasional “good.” wasn’t enough to fan my inner motivational fire. In retrospect, this was bad pedagogy. A miasma of shame began to creep over every aspect of piano practice. This was downright predictable.

I don’t regret those years of piano lessons. They gave me a musical foundation that helped me enjoy every other instrument. But it’s a grim comparison when my singing lessons couldn’t be more different.

Over a few lessons, I stopped worrying about whether I hit a note or not. My job became putting heart into the notes and relaxing enough to stop trying to fix things that don’t need fixing. 

Something happens when you listen to yourself in an analytical way, focusing on the places it sounds wrong and fixing it in the moment. The No Mistakes philosophy means that there wasn’t anything to fix. There’s an assumption of trust, that if you let the voice be and pay it attention, over time, things will work themselves out on the right subconscious level. 

The voice is a strange and complex thing, with depths and peculiarities. If we start fussing over it and covering it up, we will never get to know it. The thing we train instead is the fusser, while what we want to be getting to know and developing is the source itself.

“If you try to change it, you will ruin it. Try to hold it, and you will lose it.”—Tao Te Ching

A lot of what this pedagogy helps with is getting out of your own way. 

I get in my own way a lot. Left to my own devices, I’d hear a wrong note come out of my pipes, stop, and start over before consciously realizing this happened. Sometimes I’ll let out a sad “oops” while at it, as if to apologize for my voice’s unhappy intrusion upon existence.

Or, with notes I felt awkward around, I would attempt to quietly sneak past them, like how you’d mumble parts of a song when you don’t remember the words. 

Instead, I was told to commit to making those noises. Don’t apologize! Rather than half-ass the rough spots, put all your breath into them and support their existence. You are okay, your voice is okay, and trust that whatever comes out will be okay.

It’s still hard to believe that sometimes. But when I do work from there, I’ve liked the results. When I relax and accept the off-notes as not-a-problem, my voice is clearer and unapologetic, less conflicted, and less strained. 

And if this philosophy works for singing, it’s got to work for other things, too. I started excitedly going through life, applying it to other domains I care about.

I went climbing the other day. Normally I’d feel angst when I couldn’t do a route I’ve done before. Instead, I considered: my body is no simple machine. All I can do is rest, take care of myself, and keep practicing. I’m just here to try my best and see what happens. If it doesn’t work, I can adjust and try again. Falling off the wall is normal, goddamn it. 

Then I made some clay sculptures with friends. Everything I made was an excellent example of the process of making art, even when those sculptures turned out to be grotesque gremlins (My friends appreciated how disturbing they were). If the goal-state isn’t defined, how could anything be a mistake? It’s just expression taking different forms.

This is an exchange from one artist to another, emphasis mine:

“I confessed that I had a burning desire to be excellent, but no faith that I could be.

Martha said to me, very quietly: “There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open.”

Later I sat down for some relevant meditation. Sometimes when I sit down it’s easy and sometimes it’s not. It’s not a problem, it’s an observation. Rob Burbea begins his lecture on Metta practice with this reassurance:

“One of the great, wonderful things about doing Metta practice is that you can’t actually go wrong. It’s pretty difficult to get it wrong.”

And I now type on this computer, writing and deleting words in intuitive, inscrutable scrambles, seeing if I can welcome whatever comes. Yes. I am the word whisperer. Here I go, coaxing phrases out from the brambly and muddy headspace I happen to have today. Sometimes I sit down to write and can stare at the page blankly. Then I might give myself a push, a gentle invitation to see what’s in there. If that doesn’t work, I don’t fight it and wait to come back another day. 

What words are in me today? Some days are good word days. Some are not. This is a good word day, and for that I am grateful.

With a process like this, I’m not going to hit a specific end result. The process is a little more like going on a flaneuring walk—aiming vaguely for one point and ending up somewhere else entirely. Often, “somewhere else entirely” is better than whatever goal my conscious self had in mind do. So this is also not a problem, unless you need to get somewhere in particular, in which case, this mindset might not be right for you. 

It’s a decades-ingrained habit to take the end results of things as reflecting our self-worth, for better or worse. We judge and shame and praise and pray. But we don’t necessarily get to choose what comes out and how it comes out. Over the long haul, the quality of the flow and the relationship to the process is more important than any individual thing we produce.

In every domain, there will be so-called mistakes. The holy grail of perfection has never been found, but there is a lot to celebrate at the altar of “good enough”. There will always be off-notes, off-words, and off-days. It’s up to us to decide how we work them into the larger picture. 

Still, this is no one-frame panacea. I don’t recommend tabooing the idea of mistakes and problems. Mistakes are useful to focus on when the solution-box is small and hard to aim towards. But I suspect it’s an overly harsh, over-applied frame, and used by default only because there aren’t better, salient alternatives. Still, even within the Mistake frame, I want to add: just because something is a mistake doesn’t mean we need to feel bad about it. 

No Mistakes is an under-explored pedagogy and philosophy. My early attempts at living with it have been freeing. I’d be interested in seeing more people give it a try as well. 

One thought on “No Mistakes

  1. I enjoyed reading this. It reminded me of another post I enjoyed awhile ago that also started off with a story about music lessons


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