One evening, while my class piano students were working on their improvs for the midterm, I suddenly found myself saying, “You don’t need to apologize! Maybe in your world there’s a happy little tree right there.”

The funny thing was that absolutely everybody (from teenagers to 60+) got it. They all knew the late Bob Ross and the happy little trees and clouds in his world. The fact that no one else could see or hear the unique ideas inside their heads had escaped them in the heat of battle.

We humans do tend to believe that everyone thinks the same way that we do. Of course, this is bogus but it gives us a feeling of common ground. We also come hardwired to look for approval from those we communicate with.

The happy little trees freed them from the stress of worrying about “mistakes” and helped them to quiet their minds and focus on the music they were making. Most of them laughed at themselves, “How silly of me to think that someone could read my mind.”

We talked about the fact that there are no wrong notes in improv—that if they don’t like something they should just not do it again. We talked about consonance and dissonance and how both work together to keep us interested and surprised.

We also talked about how sometimes, if you just keep going and work it into your improv, a “mistake” turns out to be very clever, or lovely, or gut-wrenching, or mysterious, or ???. I believe this kind of serendipity is your mind talking to you from deep within and telling you something that your rational mind wouldn’t have considered.

Everybody relaxed. Everybody played more beautifully.

Later that week, a student of mine played in a chamber music masterclass given by Miles Hoffman of the American Chamber Players. He singled out two of the players and told them they could do more to match the playing of the others. “You are very correct but you need to go beyond that”, he told them.

He asked the group to describe concerts they had attended that had been really fabulous and then pointed out that their answers did not include the word correct. “You need to always strive to play beautifully because if it is beautiful it will be correct.”

Bingo! Here’s to happy little trees, beautiful playing, and serendipitous mistakes!

Portions of this post were originally published in March 2012.

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