By John G Taylor
The premise of “Grand Piano,” a new film from “Speed” director Brian De Palma, is enough to give any musician sweaty palms. Tom Selznick, played by Elijah Wood, is a concert pianist (“the new Rachmaninov” according to the trailer) who suffers from stage fright. As he turns the page of his sheet music, he finds a message telling him that if he gets one note wrong, he will be killed. The appearance of a red laser dot under the notes underlines the point.
Making a mistake when playing is frightening enough. It is also familiar. Anyone who learned to play at a young age can remember the moment in the school performance when they came in at the wrong moment or dropped a finger on the wrong key.
And we can remember, too, what happened. The music teacher indicated the next beat. We played on. The world did not end. The audience might have winced, as we did, but they forgave us, listened and praised us afterwards.
Later, that forgiveness becomes harder to receive. The more we play and the bigger the audiences we play to, the more is expected of us and the greater the cost of our errors. Play a sing-along after a family dinner and it is unlikely that anyone will notice if your finger stretches too far and lands on the gap between two notes instead of the middle of the right key. In a hotel lounge, we might get a dirty look from the manager (and certainly from the singer) if we have to track back and play a bar again. Get it wrong while performing a solo at the New York Philharmonic and we might wish that someone really was there to shoot us.
What Happens in the Practice Room Stays in the Practice Room
Usually though, we don’t make mistakes on those occasions (and not just because few of us have the chance to play solos with the New York Philharmonic). Our mistakes come when we’re alone, playing only for our own pleasure and playing music that we have not played before.
That puts the mistakes in a very different context. Because there is no one to hear them, they carry no costs. No one is going to judge our ability to play or reassess what they think about our attachment to music. And while we might feel a moment of frustration when we have to stop to check the next note or go back and play a section again, there can also be a moment of joy.
When we make a mistake in practice, it is a sign that we are stretching ourselves. We are learning a new piece, a piece that takes us out of our comfort zone. We are acquiring new skills, expanding our repertoire and pushing our musical journey into new areas. We might have got the note wrong but overall, we are doing something right. We are exploring music.
No one is going to kill us for doing that.