Rehearsals at 7:15 in the morning are rough....for anybody. However, I am grateful that I get to start my day playing jazz with a bunch of high school kids who enjoy playing enough to get to school an hour early (every day) to have some musical fun. We are getting ready for our next performance, which is Swing Night-a super fun experience that we share with Jazz I and the community jazz band. We are playing some standard charts, 'Woodchopper's Ball", "Darn that Dream", "It Don't Mean a Thing..."....you get the idea. Today I noticed that the students were playing pretty tentatively, even thought the rhythms and notes are familiar to them (I remind them that they have seen these notes and rhythms before, they are just in different configurations). The trumpets in particular are incredibly tentative in their playing and I have tried every trick in the book to encourage them to play with more volume, air, confidence....etc.
So, fast forward, I haul out my cornet and just sit in with kids. I haven't played cornet in forever---especially jazz. I mean...I don't play cornet/trumpet. I *taught* it for many years as a middle school band director and would regularly play along with my kids in lessons, band, and jazz band. But I don't actually play it. And I really only know how to play: loud (the only way, amiright fellow trumpet players??) Anyway, I got back there and started playing-missing notes, hitting the wrong partial-not on purpose, but mainly because I was just going for it (and not warmed up at all and likely playing on a mouthpiece that was way too small.) It was SO.MUCH.FUN!! And, the kids started to play a bit louder. After we got done, I exclaimed "WHO CARES IF YOU MAKE A MISTAKE?!! I mean, who really cares?? We are playing a chart at quarter note equals 160. How long does that note actually last? Nobody is going to stop you at the gates of wherever in your afterlife and say to you....'oh, no....you can't enter, because remember that one time in jazz band you played a wrong note...'' I went on to share with them that we should not fear making a mistake in place of playing with passion and energy. Mistakes WILL happen, and IT'S OK. They WILL happen in a performance, and IT IS OK. I countered this exclamation with the caveat that to purposely make mistakes is completely different than going for it and making a mistake. But that by focusing so much on playing the right notes, we are missing so much more of the experience.
Yes. Notes are important. They were intentionally put there by the composer and we as musicians have a responsibility to honor those notes and the meaning behind those notes. However, what kinds of disservice are we doing to the students with whom we work if that is the only thing we focus on? In what ways can we encourage students to make mistakes and reflect upon the experience and then in turn change how they approach the piece the second time around.
After my exclamation we started the tune over again, and by golly, it was a different band! The trumpets were playing with a newfound confidence, which encouraged the rest of the band to go for it. A few mistakes were heard, but it wasn't because the kids were purposely playing wrong notes, they were going for the notes. And I could not have been more proud.
Between classes I was going from my office to my classroom and one of the jazz band members (newer the past few weeks) stopped me and shared with me how much he enjoyed "today's lesson on making mistakes". He shared with me that he instantly became more confident because he was ok making mistakes and that only by trying and going for it, would he actually be able to learn anything. #daymade. So, while this post might ruffle a few feathers (and I welcome the conversation) I hope this offers a perspective of learning to gain understanding, versus learning out of fear-which actually does not really increase learning.
I hope to approach more things in life like this: embracing the wrong notes and all the mistakes because by doing so, we can only reflect and learn, try it again and hopefully do better.