There seems to be a conflict in education between the need for standardised testing, assessments and exams and the importance of building our piano students’ creative capacities in order to prepare them for a future we can’t even imagine.
Consider that a child born today will probably see the turn of the next century. That’s the year 2100.
How will the world look? What jobs will they do? What will life be like?
We really have no idea.
What we do know is that the skills they’ll likely need to survive and thrive are about much more than repetition of facts, equations and things you can easily test in the exam room.
They’re more likely to need skills like creative thinking, imagination, innovation, entrepreneurialism, problem solving and understanding how to write and debug computer code to solve real-world problems.
Similarly, there is a conflict in music education between the more traditional/classical piano lesson focused solely on traditional forms of reading, performance and interpretation, and that is generally assessed by examinations and recitals versus what I strongly believe contributes to long-lasting engagement in music.
Notably, a wide variety of musical experiences, enthusiastic, positive, engaging teaching, regularly creating, improvising and composing, strong parental and peer support, an ability to jam and play in groups and positive experiences that help children identify as “musicians” from a young age.
So what does all this have to do with mistakes?
Today’s download is a snippet from my 4 Chord Composing course. Read through to the bottom for the details.
Renowned educator Sir Ken Robinson, in his seminal TED talk “Do schools kill creativity” (if you haven’t yet watched this, you need to join the 54,000,000+ other people in the world you’ve seen it – it’s the most popular TED video of all time), states:
If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.
He goes on to say that by the time most kids are adults, they’ve lost that capacity to be wrong. “They have become frightened of being wrong,” he says.
Now we’re running national education systems where mistakes are the worst thing you can make. The result is that we are educating people out of their creative capacities.
We don’t grow into creativity, we grow out of it. Or rather, we get educated out of it.
By the way, there is a great edit of this video here if you’re a Facebook user, summarising these points in two minutes.
Pause for a moment to consider the last few music lessons you taught before reading this article.
How much of the lesson time did you spend correcting your students’ mistakes?
Even your very last lesson.
Was it one of the first things you did as soon as the student started playing?
Did you stop them and fix up the fingering in that scale?
Did you correct them when they played the wrong notes in the piece they’d been working on? Did you correct them when they missed the articulations or dynamics you’d been working so hard to refine last week?
If you’re like most teachers, you probably spent more than 70% of the time with your student correcting mistakes.
Now, while I know that there are times in teaching when you most definitely need to correct mistakes, and there is a right and wrong way to play/interpret/read music and the student needs to be aware of these things, what I always aim for is teaching balance.
If we know that a students’ creative capacities are built on an openness for mistakes but we spend most of our teaching time fixing mistakes, then aren’t we just contributing to educating our students out of creativity, as Sir Ken says?
What I propose is that we find that balance in lessons between activities that require mistake-fixing, correction and perfection, with activities that encourage and develop what I call great mistakes.
One of the great benefits of teaching improvising and composing at the piano is that students learn pretty quickly that it’s through ‘mistakes’ that lots of the best sounds emerge.
I call these ‘Great Mistakes’ and I make a point of calling them out whenever students make them.
For example, let’s say a student is working on a four-chord progression as part of my 4 Chord Composing framework.
Often, students will use the ‘wrong’ bass note in their left hand while playing their progression. So instead of playing say, a G chord in RH with note G in LH, they’ll play the G chord in the RH with a B in the LH, so creating a G/B chord.
Or they might ‘accidentally’ use a chord inversion in the RH with a different bass note in the left hand, or play a chord with an added note, or an accidental suspension, etc.
My immediate reaction is to correct the mistake. We were trying to play a C – G – Am – F progression and they forgot to play a B in the LH with the G chord in the RH.
So that’s a mistake right?
No way – that was the coolest sounding thing they’ve played. And they made it up themselves.
They’ve just been creative.
What they’ve actually just done is uncovered a fantastic new sound of the ‘slash chord’ which music theorists would recognise as a G in first inversion chord.
Wow – that actually sounds kind of cool!
So tell them:
That was a GREAT mistake. Can you play it again?
Things you can work on with your student:
Now we’ve really opened the creative floodgates!
But what we had to do was call it out for what it was: a mistake. An interesting mistake. A great mistake!
In fact it wasn’t really a mistake at all – it was your teaching allowing and supporting creativity.
With an example like the one above, you’ll find that students of all ages won’t often stop and think: “Oh wow, that sounded cool!”.
Instead, they will instantly correct the mistake (or even worse, stop and go back to the start to fix it all up!), almost without thinking.
One of our challenges therefore as teachers is to call out good mistakes and help students understand that these are moments of creativity that we can build on.
Why do kids immediately want to correct mistakes?
It comes down to the fact everything we teach them in schools and in life is that mistakes are bad and need to be corrected. And corrected as quickly as possible, hopefully without anyone noticing. Especially the teacher!
And so kids don’t have the time to learn from the mistake.
The saddest thing is that a ‘traditional/classical’ approach to teaching music, by its very nature, can be all too focused on reinforcing a negative approach to mistakes.
Student needs to get the notes right, play what’s written, get the rhythm right, play with the right interpretation, don’t make mistakes when performing, avoid memory lapses, etc.
While there is always a need to teach students to read and interpret and perform written music, if that’s ALL we’re doing, then students will never learn the value of a Great Mistake.
Even in the classical approach, we can improve a student’s view of mistakes in 3 ways:
I was recently working on playing some chord progressions with one of my adult students. You can download 27 easy chord progressions right here for free.
She made a couple of mistakes and they sounded great and so I called them out:
That mistake was awesome!! Show me what you did
Wow that sounded great. Can you play that mistake again?
How did you make that sound so cool?
When you do this for the first time with a student, you’ll be amazed at the look on their face.
The idea that a mistake could be a good thing is unbelievable for most students, which is why I call them ‘great mistakes’.
The student is thinking: “You want me to play it again?! I can’t even remember it – I’ve learnt to immediately erase and forget mistakes!”
The hardest thing is making students aware of mistakes that sound good, and to repeat them before they forget.
Like when they’re improvising using the blues scale in the right hand and they ‘accidentally’ play an E natural (not in the scale). This isn’t a bad thing, it can actually sound great and you can remind them that they’re only a half-step away from a ‘right’ note anyway.
Encourage them to explore and give them the bumpers (yup, like when you go ten-pin bowling!) they need to feel safe doing this.
You actually have to train students OUT of correcting mistakes when you’re doing creativity activities at the piano.
That’s about the only time that I’ll stop a student due to a mistake: and it’s to make them repeat it and work out what they’ve done before they forget.
“Oh, so you put a B in the LH with the G chord in the RH. Do you like how that sounds? Should we change the progression to use this chord instead? How would you write it down?” etc.
If the student is improvising with the blues scale but plays a note that’s not in the scale, show them how to slide off a note onto another note. Perfect!! They are learning a great trick in jazz playing and it all came from a mistake.
I’d like to share a story of one my adult students, Anne, who mentioned how my encouragement of ‘great mistakes’ in all her lessons had impacted both her and her children’s music practice.
This is what she said to me:
My five-year-old hates making mistakes; if I try to correct her she freezes and when she gets really upset she just cries and refuses to continue. If I get frustrated it makes the situation insoluble.
More recently we have been talking about mistakes before we sit down to start, and making it a game to make as many mistakes as possible, and I try to make her laugh about them by telling her how much you (Tim) love my mistakes in lessons [Tim: we’ve been working a lot on chords and chord progressions, so great mistakes are flowing rapidly!].
My seven-year-old is a little different. She was doing a similar thing, but I have found the key with her is to comment on how cleverly she is trying to work through her mistakes. I am very impressed when she works out how to fix something that she knows is wrong, and I like her persistence (this makes her feel good).
My nine-year-old doesn’t care about mistakes, he only wants to play the music as fast and as loudly as humanly possible!! (Equally frustrating, but easier to cope with than the other two because I can just encourage him to slow down, easier said than done!!!)
The other approach I find works is to make a musical ‘mistake’ into a ‘musical joke’. The kids really enjoy musical satire (funny plays on words and sounds, can’t think of all the names we listen to, flight of the concords, people like Victor Borge, etc.)
Don’t you just love how different all her kids are? Just like what we experience in our studios everyday, right?
Anne has really found that this idea of encouraging and looking at mistakes differently has had a profound impact on her family, and it all stemmed from the simple act of me encouraging mistakes in her own playing in lessons.
Could you try this with your students?
If you like the idea of a new approach to mistakes, try and find some activities in your lessons this week that will allow your students to explore their own great mistakes.
I’ve got lots of articles and videos on the blog and my YouTube with ideas that you could try, including:
All these activities are ripe for creative mistake-making, as long as you’re conscious of them, and supportive of the student.
Remember, you’ll have to be very clear to call out their great mistakes and get them to look, think and repeat what they’ve done before they instantly erase and forget it (like they’ve been trained to with all their other mistakes).
It will take time to change a student’s mindset and get them to see mistakes as a catalyst for creativity.
Let your studio be the one place in their education where students CAN explore, nurture and build their creative capacities and don’t fear being wrong.
It will open a whole new way of thinking about the world.
Get your students making mistakes with the first few lessons in my 4 Chord Composing course.
Help them learn through those mistakes and watch a truly magical learning experience unfold.
Inner Circle members, you can download and complete the full course in the Academy now.
Tim Topham is the founder and director of TopMusic. Tim hosts the popular TopCast show, blogs regularly at topmusic.co and speaks at local and international conferences on topics such as pedagogy, business, marketing and entrepreneurship. Tim has been featured in American Music Teacher, The Piano Teacher Magazine, California Music Teacher and EPTA Piano Professional. Tim holds an MBA in Educational Leadership, BMus, DipEd and AMusA.