Exploring Being Wrong To Find Improvement

The errors of the great mind exceed in number those of the less vigorous one

– William Stanley Jevons, Economist

If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not trying hard enough.

– John Coltrane, Jazz Saxophonist

There is no musician in this world who has flawless technique, because there is no such thing as flawless technique. For an artist, technique is the means toward self expression. As the artist continues to grow, the technique must evolve to serve this expression.

The pursuit of perfection is more a direction to move toward rather than a destination. (It’s not about perfection so much as it is about improvement.) To paraphrase the great cellist Janos Starker describing his continued growth:

“All of the sudden, everything I worked so hard for is wrong, because I’ve found an even better way. A new level. But when I work hard and finally reach that new level, it too will become wrong.”

The fact that even very accomplished musicians still practice, still study, still strive, is, in a sense, an admission that they’re not completely right  about their approach to playing music. There is always more. There is always a different way other than the way they already know.

The only way you can possibly reach your potential as a musician is to explore the possibility of being wrong. (But keep in mind that wrong  might be nothing more than your immediate reaction, your perception, of something that is unfamiliar.)

The sound I currently have on tenor saxophone is a result of lots of physical changes and equipment choices that were wrong  at one point in my development. And as right as they are now, they (thinking of what Janos Starker said above) may possibly become wrong at another point in the future.

Much of your sense of what is right is based upon belief and habit. F. M. Alexander  (the founder of the Alexander Technique) said:

Everyone wants to be right, but nobody stops to consider whether their idea of right is right.

In regard to postural and movement habits, Alexander found that most people’s sense of right was based upon something he called a “faulty sensory awareness.” In essence, an inaccurate sense of what’s really going on in your body as opposed to what you think is going on.

Alexander found that because people are creatures of habit, they’ll typically cling to the feeling of their habit, whether or not that habit is counterproductive to their desired intention. They’ll do so because their habits always feel familiar. They feel right.

To change, Alexander said, you need to go from the known, to the unknown. (From the habitual and familiar, to the new and unfamiliar.) This can only happen by exploring the possibility of being wrong. By allowing yourself to explore wrong, you set the stage for change.

According to the principles of the Alexander Technique, the only time you’re ever actually “wrong” is when you interfere with the natural poise and coordination that you already possess to function well.

If you make something more complicated by excessively straining muscles, rather than using a more efficient coordination based upon your bodily design and its relationship to gravity, you’re probably wrong, whether or not it feels right.

Your wrong because ultimately, it doesn’t help you play any better. It in fact makes good playing even less likely. You’re wrong only because your reaction is in conflict with your desire (and with your design).

For many, it’s not always easy to notice habits in this way. (This is where a good teacher can help immensely.)

But if you can learn to avoid a few of the truly wrong things (according to this Alexander principle) you’re left with a vast field of possibilities of things that might be right, might be better.

And of course being different isn’t necessarily wrong.

In fact that’s part of the point I’m trying to make here. Paul Desmond had a sound on alto saxophone that was as different as could be from David Sanborn’s alto sound.  But that doesn’t mean that one sound is right and the other wrong. They’re just different (and both highly unique and beautiful).

You can apply this same kind of open-mindedness to your own exploration of right and wrong as you practice.

Here are a few  other things to keep in mind to help you explore your musical practice in this way:

  • Notice how you respond-What do you do when you play something that didn’t come out they way you intended? Did your body become tense? Did you stop breathing? Did you make a scowling face?  Learning how to accept the unintentional with grace and balance is a great skill to cultivate. Besides making you a better performer, it will keep you much more open-minded in your practice. If you find yourself getting tense after trying something in a different way, stop and do it again with a less tense, less reactive  response. You might be surprised to notice that it doesn’t seem so wrong after all, and is perhaps even better than what you had before.
  • Don’t rely exclusively on what feels right-Like Alexander said, what often feels right is your habit. Sometimes to really find what’s “right” (or at least better) you have to allow yourself to feel wrong (out of your habit). In exploring new techniques, approaches and equipment, try to base your assessments on discernible, objective criteria. “Am I able to control the pitch more accurately?” “Am I able to play with less strain on my entire body?” “Can I more consistently produce my altissimo?”, etc. Make a list of your objectives with of anything new that you try. Keep track of the pros and cons. Take your time and use your reasoning.
  • Understand why you do things the way you do-If you hold your posture, position your instrument, form your embouchure, practice in a certain sequence, etc., because some well-respected expert told you to do so, I encourage you to ask the deeper question of “Why?” The better you understand the physics of your instrument, your bodily structure and design (and your thinking),  the better you’ll be able to discern the best choices for you. This is where honest self-inqury and basic scientific reasoning come into play. If you’ve been doing something the same way for years because of your deferment to a respected source, explore the possibility of not doing it that way. See what happens. Measure the results.
  • Let yourself sound bad-Sometimes to find a better way to play, you have to let go of your desire to sound good . If you start with discernment instead of judgement, you might find that sounding “bad” doesn’t really sound bad at all, just different. And even if you do sound bad (bad intonation, articulation, etc.) understand that it might just be a matter of you getting used to a less seemingly familiar coordination. It could be that as you get to know this new coordination, you play better than ever. (The current mouthpiece I play on tenor saxophone is a prime example of this. The only way I could make this mouthpiece work for me was to play in a more efficient, less strenous way than I was used to habitually.)
So as always, let yourself explore, have fun, be different, be wrong. Aim for a right direction (growth and improvement) instead of a right destination (perfection, which, as Janos Starker might say, doesn’t exist). Being wrong might just be the right thing for you. Let me know what you think!



  1. says

    Pausing and taking a few breaths, giving the AT directions, and or just setting down my instrument for a minutes all serve to allow me to let go and take a fresh approach. Great blog Bill.

    • admin says

      Thanks, Patrick. Setting the instrument down for a few minutes is one of the best ways I know to redirect my approach as I practice. It’s amazing how many musicians I encounter who don’t utilize this as fully as they could. I think you’ve just given me another idea for a new blog post. Thanks for that, too!

  2. says

    Great post bill! On the final point you make… one of my friends who was giving me and some friends vocal coaching would tell us “dare to suck!”. It really is a liberating thing to see what the possibility of “bad” sounds like and withhold judgement to allow discernment. I really dig that distinction. It takes a kind of fearlessness in a sense or detachment from the ego centered desire to allows ‘sound good’. Sometimes as listeners we’re so much more open minded than as players. I think this really points to the spiritual development of a musician and perhaps ultimately mastery of being fine with who we are as artists and human beings. Being exposed in our music can be frightening and vulnerable but can also be the catalyst for deeply moving and emotional music making.

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