Don't Apologize - You're Learning!

November 30, 2022, 5:32 PM · Don't apologize - you're learning!

I've had so many students apologize for making mistakes, especially when trying something new and failing to do it perfectly on the first try. When I read that on fiddler Andy Reiner's Instagram page, I had to smile in recognition.

There is no need to apologize, stop it!

"Oh - I'm sorry for saying I'm sorry!"

sorry violin

Aaaaaaargh!

Reiner - a fantastic fiddler and teacher (also known as the Skiing Fiddler) - has a general philosophy that he has summed up in a succinct way that we can all understand:

"You have to suck at something before you can be good at it."

To put in terms my grandmother might have liked better: you have to be bad at something before you can be good at it. If you are truly challenging yourself and trying something new, it's going to be too hard at first, and you'll make mistakes. That's okay.

Reiner has an entire podcast called River of Suck, which is devoted to the topic - interviewing various musicians about their own experience navigating this river. He has created 28 episodes, and the quote about apologizing comes from Episode 3, with violinist Natalie Padilla, a Colorado fiddler and teacher.

"You're learning, don't apologize!" she says (around 15:30). "What you're feeling right now - it's never going to go away, and that's a good thing," she continues. "You have to learn to use it to your advantage."

But how is this feeling - feeling so bad about your playing that you also feel the need to apologize for it - actually a "good thing"? And how do you use it to your advantage?

Here's how: When you take on a new and challenging goal, accept and embrace the fact that you will make mistakes. Then when you do make mistakes, try, try again. Yes, you have to recognize your mistakes, but not because you have to apologize for them. You need those mistakes and the information that they provide. The mistakes help you calibrate your next move. It's that constant re-calibration and persistence toward each small goal that will lead you to overall success.

For example:

Let's say you've just started a new piece with some technical challenges: you may only be able to play a small portion of it in the most rudimentary way, even after a week or more of practicing. This does not mean you have failed, and it does not mean you need to apologize. Keep solving each small problem, and keep enlarging the scope of what you can do.

Let's say you are learning a new technique like spiccato or sautille: You may not get that bow to bounce at certain speeds for a mighty long time. It might take months of metronome work, etudes, scales, etc. You have not failed, you don't need to apologize. Keep building on the small successes.

Let's say you are changing a bad habit, like locking your bow thumb, or bowing crooked, or playing a certain note out of tune. Maybe your teacher points it out, or maybe you are playing along and you realize, you are back to the bad habit, you've done it again. You have not failed, you don't need to apologize. Celebrate the fact that you caught yourself, make some adjustments, and move on.

Andy actually has a further suggestion: instead of apologizing when you make a mistake, "Say 'pterodactyl' instead!"

Shake it off, and then swoop in and keep trying!

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Replies

December 1, 2022 at 02:19 PM · Laurie: Great discussion. I am reminded once again of something I learned in my field (psychology) when I was in graduate school years ago. I was getting criticized severely by a couple of fellow students whom I thought were my friends. I didn't know what to do, so I stopped in to the office of one of my academic supervisors (who was, by the way, a noted psychoanalyst at the time).

He looked at me and said: "This is what you tell them - 'Look, I'm doing the best I can. If that's not good enough, I'm sorry.' And then go about your business."

He explained what he called "The Perfection Fantasy." This is the belief that being "adequate" is the same thing as being "perfect." So only perfection is good enough. The minute you make even the tiniest mistake, you are simply no good; you have fallen off the pedestal. Only perfect is allowed.

The problem is, of course, that we are all in the middle of the top of the pedestal (perfection) and the bottom (which is no good whatsoever). So the issue is accepting our imperfections as being human. Yes, we need to work on our imperfections, but we should certainly take pride in trying to do our best.

So, yes, be critical of mistakes, but do identify some other aspects of what you did that are good. Don't ignore the good stuff.

Hope that helps.

Sandy

December 1, 2022 at 05:21 PM · Both this article and Sandy's comment sure help me in this moment from a teacher's perspective! I'm a relatively new teacher, and I think I've got it in my head how perfect I've felt all my role model teachers to be that if a lesson starts to get crazy or I make a mistake and my students call me out on it, it's so easy to let that affect everything. I'm getting better at trying to learn from anything I wasn't happy with in a previous lesson and trying to take what I learned into the next lesson.

So thank you both!! I'll try to pass this onto my students as well. We're all at the end of the day just trying to make beautiful music together and share what we love with other humans, and we need to celebrate that!

December 1, 2022 at 06:13 PM · Joshua: Bravo.

December 1, 2022 at 09:39 PM · Laurie, your blog is interesting and wise, and the comments on the thread are most thoughtful. I’d simply like to add (from teaching second language students particularly) the idea that there not really mistakes, there are opportunities. So-called mistakes are actually valuable feedback for a teacher as they reveal where the learner and the class focus need to go.

December 2, 2022 at 12:19 AM · Speaking of sucking...

No matter how good you get at something, there's always room for improvement. I distilled this into a bit of musical philosophy: "We all suck, we just suck at different levels." I said this one day at a fiddle workshop; the instructor looked at me and said, "You're one of those glass-half-empty guys, aren't you?"

That taught me to be a bit easier on myself (and others).

December 2, 2022 at 12:45 AM · Speaking of sucking at different levels, the department where I attended graduate school had an annual party that was rather boisterous. Legend had it that the party, in the past (before my time), had various contests. In one of them, a large U-tube full of mercury was set up and one end was attached to a hose. Then, you sucked on the hose and the height of the mercury column was measured. Thus, your prowess at sucking was precisely quantified.

Nobody ever ingested mercury, mercury was never spilled, and even though mercury vapor is harmful the exposure by sucking on the column for a short time is probably fine. Still, I wouldn't do it, and I'm not recommending it to any of you, either.

December 2, 2022 at 10:17 AM · I myself have been heartened by something an English writer by name G K Chesterton once wrote, that his father took the attitude that if something is worth doing, it's worth doing badly. Unstated is the assumption that once you know how to do it, you'll get over doing it badly, and you'll start doing it well. I've been doing a bit of revision of some of my Suzuki cello pieces from a couple of years ago, and am surprised to see that what scared me once - jumping from first position to fourth and back - now just falls under my fingers.

December 2, 2022 at 12:00 PM · I still like the comment I read about Brahms years ago. Apparently, he was in the audience for a performance of one of his chamber works. Afterwards, the violist came up to him and tried to butter him up a bit (and Brahms was apparently not the easiest person to get along with).

Finally, the violist asked, "Maestro, did you like the tempo?"

Brahms replied, "Yes, especially yours."

So much for perfection.

December 2, 2022 at 03:00 PM · As a child-free senior citizen who has contact with young musicians I observe that there may not be any tolerance for anything short of perfection.

I often point out that I make mistakes in my studio so it's fine for them to make mistakes. They don't believe me.

I fear that the Zero-Tolerance movement that started during the 1980's has morphed into perfection-absolutism.

I'm reminded of a Jules Pfeffer cartoon where an eight year old misses a catch in a baseball game and, walking off the field, laments that his life is finished at the age of eight.

December 2, 2022 at 05:58 PM · George, the need for perfection has indeed poisoned our culture over the past, say, 40 years. The adult-beginner violinists that we hear from on this site are outliers. Mostly these days adults do not take up any sort of hobby that might involve being judged by others: Tennis, violin-playing, coin-collecting, etc. Why? Because one doesn't stand good odds of becoming "the best" or impressing one's friends and acquaintances. What activities are left? Well, there's always television. Even travel is competitive because you'll eventually compare notes with some other traveler, and your travels might be inferior to theirs.

That's what Chesterton meant about something being worth doing badly. It doesn't mean eventually you'll improve and "get good." Chesterton meant precisely that doing some things -- like making music on the violin -- are worth the effort even if one is forever doomed to do them poorly.

December 3, 2022 at 02:38 PM · I have NEVER made a mistake. (I thought I did once, but I was wrong)

December 4, 2022 at 12:32 AM · Everything was making sense...until I saw "...months of metronome work." That stupid ticking drives everything else out of my brain and leads me only to physical and emotional despair.

December 5, 2022 at 02:20 PM · Thank you for this article, and the replies so far. I was taught (and I have observed) that being hypercritical puts up the strongest barrier hindering success! There is a passage where the apostle Paul wrote under inspiration, "so let us not think more of ourselves than is necessary." The lesson learned is to have a proper estimate of myself, accept my limitations and never look down on my honest, whole hearted 100%. Being realistic, with the proper amount of humility, some days I'm able to accomplish more than on other days.

The older that I get the more I cannot do what I once could in my younger years. By being satisfied with what I CAN DO and not what I cannot do, I continue to grow and mature both as a musician and a human being. By doing this I pass on the virtues that I have acquired in life onto younger musicians and artists. And what a joyous reward to see them apply and thrive on the stage and I cheer them on in the audience.

Royster B. Jammin

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