My students probably get sick of me saying that they are allowed, even REQUIRED, to make mistakes.
It took me a long, long time to realize that I had to allow myself to fail without self-abuse in order to find success. I've always been a slow-learner in the field of music...I've had to work hard to get to my humble little space. In high school, I had very little self-consciousness regarding music - I could do everything anyone asked me to do ("Sure, I can play the blues scale in THAT key, too!"). It wasn't until Lynne Hart, my first real saxophone teacher, that I had someone putting music in front of me that I couldn't handle or couldn't understand. Even still, I tended to be the best (or nearly so) at what I was doing in my peer group, so fearing failure or not being the best didn't really register on my radar. It wasn't until I transferred to North Texas that I was, for the first time, not just around but SURROUNDED BY people who were better than me. At first, the fear of sucking was crippling. The bar for all of us was set SO high, and I began to fail with great regularity. Oh BOY, did I fail.
It was during this period that I learned to dislike what I was doing, because I absorbed the failing as some sort of flaw in my character, rather than a necessary part (and not a small part at all) of the musical process. Everyone has to face it at some point. Even those folks who seem to be the most talented and put together have had to deal with it on their level. I asked Wynton Marsalis in an interview I conducted with him at UNCG, "What was one of your most memorable experiences with failure?" He recounted the premiere of one of his symphonies with no less than the Atlanta Symphony, and he related his feelings about the experience in gory detail. One of the most esteemed and revered musicians in the world, humbly embracing what was, to him, an incredibly embarrassing experience, and in his 40s at the time.
In my studio, I often talk about how our path through musical development (a lifelong pursuit) involves accumulating experiences like binary code....1s being positives (for the context), 0s being negatives. One's musical development is about accumulating BOTH, so you both consciously and subconsciously can drift toward the positives and dance around the negatives.
"Oh, look, a B-natural sounds pretty good over Dmin7 if I'm in C, but not necessarily so great when that Dmin7 is in the key of B-flat. Duly noted, universe!"
Import enough positive and negative information, and you can be truly free to create something true (if you can manage to get out of your own way....see "The Inner Game of Tennis" or "Mindset"...PLEASE read these)
As I said, I was pretty slow to allow myself the flexibility to fail...nearly into my 30s. It's no surprise that that's the point in my life where I also experienced the most explosive growth in my artistic endeavors. And I learned to LOVE the process, even the parts when I'm sucking. No more would I come home from a gig and look at my horn with contempt, as if to say, "What are you doing to me? You're ruining my life." Through allowing myself to fail, and also having the brutal reality check of raising a child with a serious medical condition and the loss of one of my parents, I was finally able to grow, and to place the proper value and importance on music in my life.
One of the hardest things I've ever had to do, though, is to watch (sometimes in slow motion) and to ALLOW my children to make mistakes. It goes against my every instinct, in spite of what I have learned about music and life in my 44 years. It's one thing to allow for failure on learning a difficult technical study, or sound development exercise. It's quite another to watch someone who, quite literally, is on this earth because of you, have to go through a very, very difficult experience involving interpersonal relationships.
Mistakes are made with great regularity in the way we interact with people through our lives. Just like in music, we are accumulating both 1s and 0s. The 1s are the interactions in which we brighten someone's day, make them feel valued and loved and trusted, or even when we help them to understand that they've made a mistake. The 0s are the times where people we care deeply about (or even strangers) respond to us with extreme hurt, surprise, anger, even disgust. Sadly, we have to have some 0s to find where the line is. Also, that line is in a different place with every person with whom we interact, just as that B-natural doesn't quite seem to work the same over every Dmin7 chord.
Plus, as anyone who saw "Inside Out" knows, most of our experiences involve a balance of both. I don't know what all this means, except that we never stop learning; about music, about our friends, about those we hold closest...it's an unending process. Sometimes it's painful, and sometimes it's beautiful...but it's all we have. Embrace the journey.