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SHHHHHHHHHHH. Don't tell. I'm about to tell you the biggest secret about playing music that there has ever been. This secret will rock your world, same as it did mine. I didn't even find out this secret until I was in my thirties. Surely the hierarchy in the secret cabal of musicians who run the world will banish me for life if they find out I told it to you. (ASIDE: Can you imagine if musicians ran the world? Nothing would open before noon, businesses would stay open until 2am, political scandals would be based on a politician's sense of time, and international conflict would be settled in an absolutely epic battle of the bands.) I borrowed and spent an obscene amount of money to attend the Hogwarts of Contemporary Music, Berklee College of Music in Boston, and I learned this secret while I was there. Worth. Every. Penny. This knowledge was passed down to me by my piano teacher, Bob Winter. Bob was the principal pianist for the Boston Pops (click that link to see Bob doing his thing. It's unforgettable...) at the time, and I hung on his every word, especially since he's friends with John Willams, who is actual music Dumbledore. I'm sure they're both upper management in that secret cabal I mentioned earlier.

So, one day I was struggling to get my head around a particularly prickly bit of Jazz, and was wasting my weekly half-hour with Bob by pounding my head against the piano like Don Music from Sesame Street. And that's when it happened. Bob's aspect suddenly changed, and he developed a faint heavenly glow. The February New England light filtered in through his studio windows backlighting him. There was suddenly an electrical charge in the air and a 60-cycle hum seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere at the same time. The street noise outside on Boylston grew silent, birds stopped chirping, the brass players upstairs stopped making whatever noise they were making, and I knew at that moment that my life was about to change. Bob sat in that radiant light and his voice reverberated as he imparted these words: "Steve, my child. Thou workest against thyself. Thine thoughts cloud thine jazziness. I will impart to you this sacred wisdom: There are no wrong notes. There are notes you meant to play and notes you didn't mean to play. It's how you manage the ones that you didn't mean to play that make all the difference." And then WHOOSH, the world returned to normal. The birds started chirping, The cahs were pahkin' and the brass players were making their noises again. The light returned to normal, and I left my lesson a changed musician.

Ok, so maybe that's a slight dramatization of what actually happened, but the impact was enormous. I guess I had suspected all along that this was true, but having a music god speak the words out loud to me made all the difference. Suddenly I could relax. I could stop clinging to rigid expectations that I had in my head about what was "right." I could and if something unexpected happened, I had permission to, gasp, ENJOY it. Suddenly the fun of playing got...even FUNNER! And you know what happened? I became a better player. Until that moment, I had gotten Bs in piano every semester because I would always psyche myself out during the end-of-semester jury which was the basis of the grade. I choked every single time. Except that one. I got an A that semester. (How ironic is it that I played piano since I was six and was already well into my professional career by the time I got to Berklee, but the ONLY grades I got that weren't As were in piano. Ugh.)

So what does this mean for the piano student? Student musicians often think that playing the right notes is the highest priority. And for sure, the goal is ALWAYS to play the right notes. But the consequence of wrong notes is so very small. Firstly, the majority of notes that were not played intentionally do not sound terrible. If you consider that in Western music there are only twelve pitches. And we usually only use seven of them at a time. So, if at a given moment we are playing around a key center of, say, C major, then a didn't-mean-to-be-played note from the C major scale (C, D, E, F, G, A B) is going to largely sound like it belongs there. That leaves five notes that aren't in the key of C that will sound like major clunkers. So the odds are in your favor. Once a student relaxes into the idea that they aren't failures if they play a 'wrong" note, even the clunkers can be managed in a musical way. The music suddenly starts being PLAYED and not WORKED.

The other major factor at play here is that audiences don't care. They really don't care about notes that weren't meant to be played. They care about being moved by the music. They care about the experience. They care about being taken on a journey. About being transported. Mostly, audiences don't even HEAR wrong notes. And if they do, they don't recognize them as being wrong. They're too busy loving hearing music.

I suppose there are people who would disagree with this. But I would ask those people: Is it better to play a note you didn't mean to play or to be so afraid of wrong notes that it can stop a performance, or cause the musician to get so worried about it that all of the "soul" of the music is lost? There is no punishment for wrong notes. They're just not worth all of the emotional energy. Far better to PLAY music, I think, than to be a computer churning out pre-programmed algorithms. Should we TRY to play the correct notes? Of course! But let's not sacrifice all else for those little black dots on the page. After all, even Beethoven said "To play a wrong note is insignificant; to play without passion is inexcusable." And you KNOW he was in that secret cabal of musicians...

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Such a great way to approach making music at all level.

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