How to Make Things Get Worse – or Better


Sometime during my tenure as a school music teacher I spent many hours listening to recordings of rehearsals with the conductor score in hand attempting to learn what needed to improve in a particular ensemble.  I began to notice something that happened yearly regardless of the ensemble.  It may have played out differently in a band than in a choir or string orchestra, but the underlying problem was the same.

Here is how it works in a string orchestra class.  A student realizes that something does not sound good.  Perhaps they are out of tune, or maybe it is their neighbor, but most likely it is the student who notices the bad sound that is out of tune.  In response, the student slows down their bow.   As a result, they are now still out of tune and also playing with a bad tone.  In their attempt to hide the problem they have made it worse.  In order to play in tune students must keep their bow moving and make a good sound.  The higher quality sound is easier to tune because you can hear it better in the first place and because the “beats” that identify an out-of-tune note are more audible.  (Musicians know about “beats.”)  A better tone will also sound better even if it is out of tune.  And a bad tone will sound awful even if it does happen to be in tune.   In trying to hide their playing the student produces a bad tone that makes every note they play sound bad.   So the student’s attempt to improve the sound has just the opposite result.

It initially struck me as odd that a student would attempt to fix tuning, which is a left-hand issue, with the bow, which is held in the right hand.  But I heard the problem every year that I taught string orchestra in most all the classes at one time or other.  So as odd as it seemed, it was certainly not out of the ordinary.  Much teaching energy was expended to fix this problem.  It did not always “stay” fixed.  But over the course of the year the issue got better and it was easier to fix each time the problem arose.   There similar problems with wind instruments and singers who try to reduce the amount of air they are using to hide their sound.

My music teachers and directors directors always told us to “make good mistakes.”  Now I knew why.   In music, a lot of making a good mistake has to do with making sure that the mistake is made with good confident tone quality.    Beautiful tone covers a multitude of sins, musically speaking.   But it also motivates the player to fix the actual mistake rather than running away  and hiding from it.

It has also occurred to me that sports teams also get in trouble when they play scared.  I have heard it called “playing not to lose.”   It is the same concept.   Players need to be confident and aggressive to play well.  If they begin to fear losing or making mistakes they begin to play cautiously and slower.    So they are far more likely to make big mistakes and lose.

After a time, I came to see that this had larger and broader human implications.  I mean, how hard is it to think of a situation in which a person has a problem and does something that makes things worse instead of better?    How about this:  A person is under a lot of stress at home and at work.  The go out to a bar and spend a lot of money getting stinking drunk.   It makes the stress take a break for awhile, but it makes things worse ultimately.  They sober up, they have a hangover, they are broke.   I have no problem with social use of alcohol, but it doesn’t really solve a lot of problems.   Or this:  A person is feeling a ton of pressure because there is not enough money to cover all the bills.   So they go to the bank, withdraw a few hundred dollars, and see if they can’t win it by gambling.  These are, of course, serious examples.  But there are many situations in between a kids soccer game or a beginning orchestra concert and full blown addiction of any sort.  The common element is the human tendency to make things worse if we are sloppy in our thinking and decision making.  In fact, actually thinking instead of reacting with no thought is the first step down the road to overcoming this tendency.

I am not enough of a psychologist or theologian to offer up an explanation for this conundrum.   But once I had noticed this human tendency I made an amazing discovery.   I do things that make things worse.   I do not feel up to having true confessions here, but lets just say that I, at times, have tried to find a cheap, easy, and frequently habitual solution to a problem that actually made things worse.  And sometimes I even convinced myself that my behavior was “justified because….”   So many of the challenges I faced in my life were, upon further review, self-inflicted wounds.  Perhaps some day I will be more forthcoming about some of these.  They usually seemed to center around an arrogant stubborn attitude that took years to adjust.  I still have to fight it at times. But not as much.

One of the beliefs I had to set free was the conviction that a musical performance, especially a competition, was so important that literally anything I could do in a rehearsal to get the desired results was justified.  I mean, it was contest, right?    This is not something a music teacher can give up easily.  Some never do.  But over time I began to see that some of the things I was doing were a poor substitute for good motivation and enthusiastic teaching.   And, over time, I noticed that my retention rates of students in my music classes was improving.  More of my students seemed to truly love music, and not just trophies.  (Although trophies and great music are a great pairing for young students who have not had that aesthetic epiphany.  If you are a musician you will most likely understand that.)

So the Happy Rock Way of dealing with challenges is to evaluate problem situations and our usual responses. Then we must search out new and better solutions. There is no promise that this will be easy.   Sometimes the sought after solutions insist on hiding.   But search on.   Sometimes we insist on learning things the hard way, but learning the hard way is still learning.  For some reason, things we learn the hard way tend to stick with us.    Along the way mistakes will be made.  But it is so important to make good mistakes.  While this works, it is still psychologically risky since you will have to admit that you are responsible for your own life.  But the risk is tied to the reward.

One of the results of this kind of examination of my own life that I feel I can share is that I am around thirty-five pounds lighter now (12/21/14) than I was at the beginning of August.  (I will probably blog  more about that in the future.  But this is an ongoing process and I am still learning.)

Another benefit seems to lie in ones ability to draw others into your circle and actually increase your ability to lead people through positive means as opposed to fear and manipulation.

The Happy Rock Way:  Rock your life.  Make good mistakes.  Learn.  Grow.  Move on to the next thing. Rock your life. Rock your world.

Added on 12/22/2014
This is so right.  This doesn’t directly use the term  “making good mistakes” but it totally explains how good mistakes work:

Revised 6/30/2015   Thanks for reading.


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