Learn to love those wrong musical notes

Learn to love those wrong musical notes

Many of you have likely heard of Victor Wooten. I first heard of him as a member of Béla Fleck and the Flecktones. For years I knew of him as a monster bass guitar player. Incredible. He’s one of those guys who can lock in the groove with basic playing when that’s his job, but then step out onto the stage alone and play a bass solo that sounds like a trio and keeps you completely captivated. Wooten’s really an amazing player, no doubt about that. He’s got something like five Grammy Awards to back up the claim, though something tells me that’s about the last thing he finds important.

Over the years, I’ve come to understand that he’s much more than a monster bass player. He’s a great teacher and a music philosopher. He seems to love to share his wisdom with musicians of all levels. I’ve heard him a couple of different times, including in his cool audio book, The Music Lesson: A Spiritual Search for Growth Through Music, talk about wrong notes, and he’s got an interesting take on them that intrigues me.

Victor Wooten, The Music Lesson
“The Music Lesson” by Victor Wooten is a trip that every musician should take whether a bass player or otherwise.

Wooten works to get us to not only accept the bad notes we play, but to embrace them, and actually play them on purpose. His point is that when we practice, we always practice the right notes. Now, of course that’s a good thing to do, but he teaches that practicing the wrong notes is also important. It’s important to play the wrong notes because if all we ever do is practice the right notes, then we never become comfortable with the wrong ones. And since we’re not comfortable with a wrong note, when we do play one (which, of course we all inevitably will), the shock and discomfort of that note, if it doesn’t throw us completely off, will at the least cause us some level of anxiety. And anxiety is not the friend of a musician during a performance. Learn to play wrong notes and be comfortable with them, and they won’t affect you as negatively when you accidentally play one during performance.

But playing wrong notes, well that’s just not cool. It’s certainly not what the audience wants to hear. They make a player look foolish. Well, the point is, wrong notes don’t make you foolish or incompetent, they make you human. They can’t be avoided forever. Sooner or later, one sneaks into even the best player’s performance. So, getting comfortable with wrong notes helps you get through that moment when it happens to you.

So, how can we get comfortable playing the wrong note? I have an uncle who was a very talented carpenter. I spent a summer working with him gutting and remodeling an old house. One day he did something he wasn’t too happy about. I don’t remember what it was, but it was a mistake. It was not up to his normal high standards of craftsmanship. But whatever it was, it was permanent. He’d done it, and now he had to live with it. My uncle had a very, very hot temper. When he got mad, he was likely to explode. But this time, I was shocked at how calm he was. He took a look at what he’d done, and suddenly set about making it better. He couldn’t undo the mistake, but that didn’t mean anyone would ever have to know about it. He changed plans in mid stream. He improvised a solution. He looked at me and said, “Gary, the secret to being a great carpenter is not how many mistakes you make [or don’t make], it’s how well you cover them up.”

That always stuck with me. It’s a way of saying we’re all human, and we’re all going to make mistakes, so you’d better learn to accept them quickly and figure out how to make them better.

Wooten’s saying the same thing about music. And to help us figure out how to “cover up” our playing mistakes, he makes a fascinating point. There are 12 notes in an octave, but they’re not all in the scale that you’re playing. For instance, if you’re playing the major scale, only seven of the 12 notes in any octave are “right” notes. The rest of the notes–nearly half the notes in the octave–are “wrong” notes or “bad” notes. They’re not in the scale, and there are an awful lot of them, so chances are you’re going to hit one sooner or later. But here’s the cool thing that I’d never connected on until Wooten pointed it out: no matter which wrong note you hit, you are never more than one half step away from a good note.

Hand on the piano keyboard
You’re never more than one half step away from the right note.

Wait; what? It’s true. Try it. Pick any scale, and start improvising a melody in that scale on the piano, your guitar, or whatever you play. Then hit any wrong note and stop. It’s easy to hear it’s a wrong note, but all you have to do is raise or lower the note by half and you’re back on a safe note in the scale. Try another wrong note, and it’s the same thing. It doesn’t matter which off-scale note you play, you’re always just a half step from a safe scale note. When I first heard that, it was like the scales fell from my eyes.

So what; what’s the big deal about that? It’s still a wrong note. The big deal is that once you know that, then you never have to worry about a wrong note again. You’ll know it’s wrong as soon as you hit it, just like you always have. The difference is that now you don’t have to agonize over that note. Instead, just treat it as if you’d intentionally played it as a passing tone or a leading tone that slides right into the note right next door that was obviously your target all along (at least it’ll seem that way to your listeners). And if you’re really worried that someone will judge you for that wrong musical passage, then do what I used to do all too often on stage: play it exactly the same way again. Anyone who caught the mistake the first time will find themselves unsure about whether it was a mistake or whether you’ve just played some innovative, clever passage that they should be super impressed with.

It’s not how many mistakes you make, it’s how well you cover them up.

It’s really just a mindset. Kenny Werner makes much the same argument in his classic book Effortless Mastery where he talks about learning how to love every note you play and to develop the ability to accept every note as the most beautiful sound you’ve ever heard. Only when we learn to accept the notes we play–all of the notes we play–will we ever be truly able to let go and let the music take us where it will. And then the listener can come along with us.

Kenny Werner, Effortless Mastery
Kenny Werner tells us to learn to hear every note we play as the most beautiful sound ever.

Of course, all of this is far easier said than done. It goes against every grain we’ve ever had to play a wrong note. When you’re playing live, it can be a horrifying experience. You want to crawl into the kick drum and let the drummer beat your head for a while. But that’s exactly the point Wooten is making. You can either go on performing with that fear and that unhelpful reaction to your mistakes, or you can get comfortable with those outside notes and learn to come back inside when you find yourself touching on one of them. I’ve seen Wooten go so far as to say you should play sometimes using nothing but the wrong notes. It’s a good exercise in the discipline of the groove. As long as you can keep the groove going, you can make it through those wrong notes. You have to make sure they don’t throw you off, and the way to make sure they don’t throw you is to become comfortable with them. Make them yours. Become so familiar with them that you instantly know how to salvage the situation. Unless you’re in a situation where you’re being evaluated on the perfection of your technical mastery, you can get away with just about anything as long as you keep the groove, get off of that wrong note, and move effortlessly and smoothly into a right one.

That’s a great lesson for me to learn, and I’m still working on it. Give it some thought and start working on it yourself. How does it feel?

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