On Making Mistakes
Updated: Jul 21
I’ve sometimes wondered how the greatest jazz improvers rarely seem to make mistakes. Of course, they spend thousands of hours in the practice room mastering their instrument. At that level, your creative ideas are limited only by your brain. But we all know that perfection is impossible even for the best of the best. So how is it that the masters can come so close to achieving it? My theory: the best improvisers also know how to use their mistakes as the basis for new ideas. A mistake is not defined by what you play, but instead by how you react to it. When I hit a note I didn’t to play, I could get flustered by it. I could pause and try to regather my thoughts. Or I could repeat the “bad note” with conviction, and use it to develop a new motif. This requires an intense level of focus, and of course, practice.
In the world of classical music, improvisation is sometimes seen as a lower art form. Though many of the greatest composers were legendary improvisers, it is no longer a part of standard music education. In my most recent classical compositions, I experiment with live spontaneous composition. I have some idea of the themes and motifs I want to incorporate. I leave everything else undecided until I take the stage. The challenge I set out for myself was to improvise with enough conviction that the audience believes I have composed the piece ahead of time. It has taken a lot of practice, but I have gotten much better at it. The trick is to use the principle I mentioned earlier, mistakes MUST become the foundation for my next idea. So long as I play with conviction and focus, many mistakes can go unnoticed.
A Valuable Art Form
Improvising is sometimes looked down on because it is often much less polished than a carefully rehearsed composition. When you write something ahead of time, you can practice the most difficult spots until you can reliably perform them at a high level. But when you don’t know what you’re going to play next, lots of unintended notes will find their way into your phrases. Pre-composed music often has elements that take listeners by surprise. But they are not perceived as mistakes, because the composer develops those surprises. He layers them into themes, shaping them into a piece over time. The spontaneous composer must do the same thing. He must fly the airplane and fix it at the same time, with a perfect poker face. By passing off improvisation as legitimate composition, I hope I can legitimize improvisation as a valuable art form. We shouldn’t change our opinion of musical quality after finding out how it was made. Good music is good music, I say.
Real Life Application?
In real life though, leaning in to your mistakes is often not such a good idea. When you’ve done something wrong, owning up to it is almost always the best way to mitigate future damage. Pouring more money into a failing investment will likely result in more loss. Refusing to admit missteps in a relationship will likely result in a loss of trust. Music isn’t real life, and that’s okay. It has been an invaluable escape from daily stress for me and for so many others. Thanks for reading my thoughts, have a great week!
Contact Tomás Jonsson
Tomás Jonsson is a recent graduate of Rice University. He studied Piano Performance with Brian Connelly (Classical) and Paul English (Jazz). In addition to his Piano Performance Degree, he graduated with a minor in Politics, Law, and Social Thought.
Described as "extraordinarily talented" by Houston Public Media, Tomás is a highly sought-after pianist and composer on the Houston music scene. He has played on many recording projects and is known for his ability to perform with any lineup, in any genre, for any audience. He currently serves as pianist at West University Baptist Church in both the Traditional and Contemporary Services. Previously, he spent 3 years playing at the Fountain of Praise, which has given him invaluable mentorship from exceptional musicians deeply rooted in the Black Gospel tradition. He also performs regularly at corporate events, weddings, and private parties (among other venues). Tomás is available for booking as a solo pianist, and can also lead and coordinate the perfect ensemble for your needs, whether it be a trio, quartet with guitar, quartet with horn, or a custom ensemble.
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