If you hit a wrong note, hit it again
Thursday, November 15, 2018
On my first night on the bandstand in Herbie Hancock’s band, I was somewhere between panicked and terrified. As we began the first song, I made the mistake of looking out at the audience. A few rows away sat famed jazz arranger Gil Evans with his best buddy… Miles Davis. Miles Davis!
At that point I left merely panicked far behind and advanced well into terrified. One horrible mistake would brand me an incompetent newbie, not only in the eyes of my fellow band members, but in the presence of Gil and Miles, both of whom I idolized.
It would have helped if I’d known what Miles regularly told his band members: If you hit a wrong note, hit it again!
"Mistakes" in Jazz
The kind of jazz Miles concentrated on from late 1959 onward, beginning with his ground-breaking album “Kind of Blue,” is called “modal jazz.” Modal jazz depends on various combinations of notes separated from one another by half-steps and whole-steps.
On a piano, for instance, if you start at middle C, a white note, the black note immediately above it, C sharp, is a half-step away. The white note above that, D, is a half-step away from C sharp and a whole step away from C, which is where you started.
It turns out there are seven distinct modal scales — each of them a unique pattern of five whole-steps and two half-steps. By further altering these seven modal scales in various ways, a jazz musician has at his command hundreds of different scale patterns.
When you’re playing a particular modal scale, it’s very interesting what happens when, as is nearly inevitable in live performance with dozens of choices to be made every fraction of a second, you play a “wrong” note.
What happens is that you’ve now ventured onto a new scale. To be a little wonky for a moment, if you’re playing a Phrygian scale, which has a whole step between the fifth and sixth scale steps, and you accidentally play a half-step there instead, you’re now playing a Locrian scale, which has a similar scale pattern, but with a half-step between the fourth and fifth scale step.
Doing this, when the other players are playing a Phrygian scale, might sound like a “mistake” if you correct it, but if you go on to play that wrong note again — if you continue playing in the new Locrian scale you’ve accidentally begun, it sounds fine — it’s now part of the new musical structure.
In fact, Miles often played slightly different modal scales from the scales played by the rest of the band. He found the result, a slight increase in the overall tension in the music, was interesting.
The Benefits of the Wrong Note
Miles was not an explaining kind of guy. You either got it or you didn’t. But over the years following my first night with Herbie, I’ve played with a lot of Miles’ alumni and, like all jazz musicians, we talk about Miles.
The “wrong note” advice has come up many times because, as I now see, it’s not only fundamental to Miles’ approach to music: it’s good advice for everyone.
In fact, not understanding its importance can put you at a disadvantage in your career and even in your life. Here’s why:
Implicit in Miles’ advice is the acknowledgment that, yes, you’re going to make mistakes.
That’s important because the attempt to avoid making mistakes is, itself, one of the worst mistakes you can make. It focuses you on what can go wrong. As we now know from several research investigations of multitasking, humans aren’t very good at it (although we often think we are).
If you’re focused on what can go wrong, you’re not focused on what can go right. You can’t freely select the next note in the song when you’re focused on which notes to avoid. But when you accept mistakes as a natural part of the creative process, you don’t have to work so hard avoiding them and you can put more of your creative energy where it belongs: into creating.
Performance is everything in life, just as it is in music.
How well you perform depends upon exploring and expanding the range of your capabilities. You can’t possibly perform well and expand that range — which, requires not only understanding the process you’re immediately involved in, but how that process links strategically to other processes — if you’re habitually focused on what might go wrong next.
When you stop worrying about your next mistake, you’re free to look farther ahead. Accepting mistakes is an intrinsic part of the learning process and an important aspect of your personal growth.
Miles’ advice not only asks you to accept your mistakes, but to incorporate them in your experience.
The player who hits a “wrong note,” moves forward by accepting that this note is now a part of the performance and then exploring what that note can lead to. Mistakes are stepping stones; if you use them, they always lead to something. It could be a great tune, a new business opportunity or a cure for disease.
Some Notable Wrong Notes
Alexander Fleming, a bacteriologist, returned from vacation to find that a green mold had contaminated his lab.
Instead of throwing it out, he examined it under a microscope and found that the mold was preventing the growth of bacteria. Accepting that this messy green stuff was interesting enough to examine led in a few weeks to the identification of penicillin.
Charles Goodyear was experimenting without success on a way of stabilizing rubber so it wouldn’t melt in summer or become unusably hard in winter, when he accidentally dropped a handful of rubber, sulfur and lead onto a hot stove.
When it cooled enough to be removed, he discovered, it was still flexible, but much harder than rubber alone. Instead of throwing it out, he began experimenting with it. Hence, vulcanized rubber and the tires on your car.
It turns out that dozens of the most important scientific advances were accidents or mistakes, including X-rays, nuclear fission and the pacemaker.
A willingness to learn from mistakes is so important that one language learning site advocates doubling your mistake rate in order to speed learning. Mistakes aren’t intrinsically good or bad; they’re what you make of them. Used properly, they help you grow faster.
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