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Open Your Heart To Your Mistakes By Murphy Henry

Posted by caseyhenry on Friday, February 28, 2014

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Last month we talked about the importance of playing through your mistakes. Today I'd like to take that idea a step further and suggest that the very mistakes that you loath can be turned into new and exciting licks if you can only learn to love them!

But before you can learn to love them, you must first learn to recognize them. You have to open your heart to your mistakes so that when they occur you can hear them with an open mind and add them to your own personal bag of licks. Because even if you are studying the Gospel According To Earl, your mistakes will be your own. 

Of course, learning to use your mistakes is not as easy as it sounds. (If it even sounds easy!) That's because mistakes are awful hard to catch and even harder to remember and recreate.

Here's what I witnessed during a recent jam session I was leading. We had just played a slow version of Foggy Mountain Breakdown so Tim could try out his newly-learned break. (He earned an "atta boy!") Then we kicked it into high gear so that the more seasoned players could have the experience of "taking it to the limit" and playing on the edge. Pam, a burgeoning Intermediate who plays clean and solid at a slower pace, opted to try the faster speed, a speed at which you simply cannot think about what you are doing. As I was watching Pam take her break I saw her substitute the D lick from Do Lord (which she had just learned) for Earl's D lick in Foggy Mountain Breakdown. It wasn't even a straight substitution. She had to make a slight modification to make it fit. From her startled look I think she realized she was playing it differently--maybe she thought she was making a "mistake"--but she kept going and, in fact, nailed that break to the wall. Signed, sealed, and delivered! Then, Kathy, who took the next break, played the same D lick that Pam had used. I'm not sure if that was an unconscious theft or if Kathy simply liked Pam's D lick  and chose to use it herself.

The point is, if Pam had recognized that different lick and had been able to remember it and use it again, then she would have created--on her own--a slightly different version of Foggy Mountain Breakdown. This would give her two versions which she could chose to play at will. Furthermore, having used this different lick in Foggy Mountain Breakdown, Pam could experiment with using it in other songs. And then she would consciously own that lick. 

If Pam had made that "mistake" in a lesson, I would have pointed it out to her immediately and asked her if she had heard her own "mistake." (You gotta hear 'em first!) If she had, I would have asked her to try to recreate that "mistake" right then and there. If she could do that, then I would have had her play that "new" version of Foggy Mountain Breakdown over and over until it got into her head. Then I would have asked her to play the two versions back to back, so that she could have the experience of having to pull two different D licks out of her head. And if she hadn't noticed her "mistake," which is far more likely, then I perhaps would have played it for her, so she could hear what she had unwittingly done. We might then have tried to incorporate the new lick, but, on the other hand, the process works better if the student can recreate their "mistakes" themselves.

The whole point pretty much boils down to this: You have to listen to your own playing. This means listening to what you are actually playing, not what you wish you were playing, and opening your heart to your mistakes. Take them and use them. They are gifts from the gods. Even if you can't love your mistakes in the moment, it's a good idea to try to recreate them anyhow because it stretches your mind. Think of your mind as a fishing net--only you are fishing for "licks." As you learn to catch your mistakes, this net will grow larger so you can catch more and more mistakes. Some of these mistakes will be "keepers" and some of them will be "clunkers." Abandon the clunkers, incorporate the keepers, and smile, smile, smile!

One of the tricks professional musicians use all the time, especially on stage, is to re-play a mistake as soon as you make it so the audience will think you did it on purpose. At our Intermediate Banjo Camp last March, Casey and I were putting on a small show (two banjos) for the students, accompanied by our friends Scott Brannon on guitar and Steve Spence on bass. We were doing John Henry, which is not a song I perform often. I was taking an up-the-neck break and I made this huge clunker. So, following the "rule" I played it again so everybody would think I did it on purpose. Then I passed the break to Casey and I will be durned if she didn't repeat my "mistake" note-for-fracking-note just because she could! I looked over at her and said, sotto voce, "That was a mistake!" She sotto voced back, "I know!" 

Naturally, after the song was over we explained to the students what was going on, that I had made an actual "mistake," that I had tried to cover it by doing it again, and that Casey had knowingly copied my mistake just because she knew it would be hilarious to us both, which it was. Playing music is so much fun! And capitalizing on your mistakes can make it even more fun! So, listen to what you are playing and open your heart to your mistakes. Some of them, like silence, will be golden.

5 comments on “Open Your Heart To Your Mistakes By Murphy Henry”

schlange Says:
Friday, February 28, 2014 @11:06:35 AM

That Casey, she's a sneaky one!

Banjo Bob Anderson Says:
Monday, March 3, 2014 @10:44:42 AM

Murphy, you have great wisdom, and are an excellent teacher.
"Banjo Bob" Anderson

diehuismuis Says:
Wednesday, March 5, 2014 @4:10:25 AM

Always enjoy your posts; they contain invaluable advice that awakens the beginner/intermediate player to new perspectives on playing, all while reinforcing some of the core pointers that lie at the heart of approaching and mastering this wonderful instrument. :) Thank you for writing-- and keep it up (please)!

Tam_Zeb Says:
Friday, March 28, 2014 @12:29:58 PM

Hi Casey & Murphy, Doing my best to play on through my mistakes although it's hard to distinguish the melody from the mistooks. Thank you both for getting me this far, I could not have done it without you.

Dave1climber Says:
Monday, May 26, 2014 @11:29:20 AM

Great tip, and story! :-)

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