Learning from failure

I recently read an article in the Harvard Business Review that offered a stark message: the fear of failure impedes success.

The article, written by Julian Birkinshaw and Martine Haas, is directed towards business leaders, but its wisdom is equally relevant for musicians.

We can become more accepting of failure by attempting to improve our return on it. This means benefitting more from each consecutive failure. When we are young we might play something wrong five or ten times before getting it right. But, as we gain experience and knowledge we might need only one or two mistakes before we learn how to play the passage correctly. When we require fewer mistakes to learn something, we have increased our return on failure. Failure, in this light, is seen as an investment that pays dividends.

I know many musicians (myself included) who will play a passage incorrectly several times without stopping to fix it. Perhaps it is an out-of-tune shift on the violin or an interrupted legato on the clarinet. We only need to hear a single mistake in the passage to know that we are not perfectly in control. If we stop to work on the problem area immediately, we won’t practice the mistake but rather practice the solution. Fixing a problem after one error is an example of a high return on failure.

Ideally, after every audition, students should analyze (together with their teacher) what went wrong. It is not enough to say, “I was not as good as the person who won.” Ask yourself, why am I not as good? What is the level required to win first prize and what sort of preparation is required to reach that level? Did my preparation omit something important? Did I adequately prepare for all of the variables inherent in a performance (nerves, climate, reeds)?  After every concert or audition, make an effort to gather insights about what worked and what didn’t. Crystallize these insights into maxims or modes of operation that will help you prepare better for future concerts. These can be practical, such as “Never eat right before a concert,” or more philosophical, like “you don’t know a passage unless you have performed it flawlessly ten times for an audience.”

Success in the practice room should not be solely measured in terms of getting the piece right. Conduct an experiment while practicing, and you will find that success is about confirming or rejecting a hypothesis. The authors write that failure is less painful when you extract the maximum value from it.


Here’s the original article!