Trick question: What do you feel when you miss a note?

Usual answer: frustration, sadness, disappointment, shame, rage, suicidal tendencies, and so on.

Answer: You should feel: nothing. Nothing – not because you don’t care, or because it’s not important.

The answer is nothing because it’s not about your ego. It’s about information.

A missed note (aka mistake, clam, et al.) is an opportunity to learn something. It is telling you that something needs to be adjusted so that you get the desired result. Mistakes are an essential part of the learning process, and if we take time to process the mistake, we will learn very quickly.

If, on the other hand, we play it correctly, that is also information, and we need to process it as well by thinking: what exactly did that feel like to do it correctly? What was I doing to make that happen. And then try to repeat the action to build consistency and reinforce neural pathways.

It’s easy to say, but not so easy to do. Our current western culture pressures us all to make the process of practicing an event of the ego. Feel bad if you miss! Feel proud if you get it! There is a line in the Rudyard Kipling poem If that encapsulates it well: “If you can meet Triumph and Disaster and treat those two imposters just the same…” Both of the responses that society inculcates in us, pride and shame, are equally distracting and useless in our studies or performance. Both are ego responses to the event. As they say in golf, there’s nothing worse to spoil your next shot than a bad short just before, unless it’s a good shot just before. Ever happen to you?: You’re 3/4 of the way through a concert and you let yourself think, “Oh boy, I’m 3/4’s of the way through and I haven’t missed a single –OH CRAP!”

We need to uncouple our ego from the results of our playing so that we can focus on what is happening, be acutely aware of what just happened, and either make a plan to adjust something to fix the mistake, or repeat the action when we achieve the desired result.

You can practice this ego detachment in everyday life as well. Next time you’re in a line at the post office or supermarket, and the line next to you moves faster, observe yourself. Do you get irritated because you chose “the wrong line” or if your line moves faster, are you proud of yourself for picking so well? If notice that you have an ego reaction like this, go to the back of the line until you can wait with equanimity.

Now, if you have a great performance and you want to go celebrate with drink and song after the concert, be my guest. Nothing wrong with that. But while you are playing, keep your ego out of it. It doesn’t belong. It doesn’t help. Listen dispassionately to your own playing and use the information that you receive. Appreciate the help that the mistakes are giving you to make you better. Don’t rush to play again after you miss the note – that usually means you’re just doing the same the again and expecting a different result (the definition of insanity). Use the information to make an adjustment and try again. You make an educated guess as to what might produce better results, try it out, check what happened, and repeat the process. As in archery, it doesn’t do any good to swear if your arrow hits outside of the bullseye, or to pat yourself on the back if it is in (or if your results are better than someone else’s). Simply think, “Hmm. A little high. Lower it a bit and see what happens. Hmm. A bit low. Raise it a tiny bit. Nearly there. Raise it a tiny bit more. That’s it! Now do it again. That’s it. And again…”

This concept (among others) is well-depicted in the book Zen in the Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigel. Short book, small pages, big print. You can read it in an afternoon. It make take a couple of read-throughs to really understand the story, but it’s well worth it.