While it probably does not seem like this would help – let's face it – if you are unwilling to play a lot of wrong notes, you're never going to learn how to do anything hard. And improving is hard! It is not something that you can do safely, with the assurance that you will look good while trying to get good at it. You will not look good. You will not sound good – and the sooner you realize this, the sooner you will be able to do something of real value.
Strangely, we are from a culture that reinforces the idea that we should always look
good. I mean there are actually people who think you should look good when you're
sick. When you get up in the middle of the night. Or when you have not slept for 36
Get the picture?
So, now that that's said – what is the best strategy for playing wrong notes and
actually making progress at the same time?
De-emphasizing Note Values
I have found that the best way to start is by de-emphasizing note values - focussing
instead upon rhythm, texture, density and shape. Music is way more than just the
notes you play, and note selection tends to be the very thing that stops people in
their tracks. Thus, my "Wrong Note Strategy."
The following are possible points of departure for playing wrong notes – properly:
Melodic Shape – Conceptualize a melody – do not get too specific with notes, but
think only in terms of the overall shape of the line. Does it go up? Does it climb?
Does it jump? If you have a hard time, try creating a melody on your instrument
that is shaped like something else. I think it was John Cage (a rather famous
composer) that used the New York skyline as the basis for a piece of music. My vote
is, if John Cage can do it, we can too.
Density – Think about density. Are there a lot of notes all close together? Or are
they spaced wide apart? Density shape is determined by where there is little space
between notes, and where there is a lot of space. It is applicable melodically,
harmonically and rythmically. I think there are even methods of encoding data that
use this approach (can not remember the name of it). I figure, if it's OK for Intel to use
this concept for data, I think it's OK for us to use it too.
Rhythm – What about a rhythmic approach? What if note values were totally
unimportant, and we thought only percussively about the music? Like using blocks
of notes – dissonances as though playing drums with the keyboard (or whatever)? It
seems to have worked for legions of 20th Century composers, so why not for us?
Texture – How about making sounds – funny sounds – on our instrument? I
Remember working with a violinist from the LA Philharmonic, who told me she
could not improve. I asked if she could make noises. She said, "Oh sure! I like
making really funny noises like this; and this; and this. "We proceeded to" play funny
sounds "for the next hour and a half, experimenting with all sorts of melody,
harmony, rhythm and texture – coming up with some really beautiful stuff, after
which she asked, "was that improving?" I said, it sure was, and she was totally
changed by the experience.
I love that story, because it really shows that all we really need is permission to play
"wrong" notes. Once we are willing to do that, then we can experiment – often on a
very high level – with the vital textural, rhythmic, shape and density aspects of
It still communicates, it's really creative, and it really is music.
So play some wrong notes today!