John Cage on Making Mistakes

Tuesday Quotes are short explorations of music, life, and the daily endeavor of practicing classical guitar. Find more here. Enjoy!

“A ‘mistake’ is beside the point, for once anything happens it authentically is.” 

John Cage

As a public, we love people who deny reality. It makes for a good story. We love Steve Jobs with his “reality distortion field,” optimistic underdogs, and economists.

But in real life, it’s usually futile to deny reality. We may feel better or worse for a while, but reality remains.

Take mistakes in music, for example. Of course we would rather not make them. We try very hard not to. But we still make them.

And when we do, how do we respond? Do we tantrum? Wither? Say nasty things to ourselves?

Or do we acknowledge the mistake and move on, refocusing on current notes?

Logically, we move on and refocus. But in realtime, we may experience emotions. Especially if we are playing for other people.

But this is a skill we can build. We can practice making mistakes and accepting them. And we don’t even need to make any extra ones – we can work with the ones we already make in practice.

“Poker face” is part of musical artistry. Great masters don’t wince when something goes awry.

We don’t need to bring attention to mistakes that people may not have even noticed. We detract from the music when we upstage it with our personal recriminations.

John Cage also said, “There is nothing we need to do that isn’t dangerous.” We can accept this and live with any notes that fall through the cracks.

This doesn’t mean we need to like them. Only that we can learn to separate mistakes from our sense of self-worth or legitimacy. And to stay with the present moment.

No need to make more mistakes because we’re distracted with ones in the past.

Millard Fuller, founder of Habitat for Humanity, offered, “It is easier to act yourself into a new way of thinking, than it is to think yourself into a new way of acting.”

Alone in our homes, we can practice awareness and intention. We can cultivate our “poker face.”

We can practice noticing when our attention drifts. And when it inevitably does, we can gently bring it back to the task at hand.

We can learn to tally beautiful moments, rather than blunders. We can count up from zero, rather than down from 100 (like the red-penned teachers of childhood).

Then, if and when we play for others, we will have practiced keeping it all together. We’ll be better able to share genuinely, making an honest effort and feeling good about it.

Allen Mathews

Hi, I’m Allen Mathews. 

I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two other stellar teachers – one focused on the technical movements, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully.
Click here for a sample formula.

Life is good, still enjoying [The Woodshed Program], the progress is life altering, I love it. The physical challenges of my situation have rained havoc for over half my life. In spite of those little pests this 40$ Yamaha classical who needed a new home and your course has given me the "part the clouds for the sun to shine through" outlook. You see, even when I am unable to play I know she patiently waits for my return as I do. A giant void in my journey was filled with light.


~ Ken Montz

-Ken Montz

Allen: Just wanted you to know I have thoroughly enjoyed The Woodshed program. I'm in Level 1C and love how every part works together. It has improved my "general" playing already.


~ Lydia Chance

-Lydia Chance

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