Friday, 22 November 2013

Make mistakes make things better

It was the world premier of Elgar’s 2nd Symphony. Elgar was conducting. The music was complex, difficult and demanding and all the players needed to be on top form.

The lead trumpeter was mentally preparing himself. The music was climbing towards a climax -- a climax he would finish-off by playing an extremely high, long and exposed note. The moment was swiftly approaching; the trumpeter took a deep breath and began to play, joining the gathering upward swell of the music that was ever reaching up and up towards his climactic high note. It took great effort and stamina and no little concentration to get there, but get there he eventually did – perfectly!

But in that moment of climax the effort expended in getting there caused the trumpeter to mentally blank out and stop counting. As a result he played the high and incredibly exposed note for two bars too long!

Devastation! Embarrassment! To make such a mistake in front of the great composer was unforgivable! Straight after the performance the crestfallen trumpeter rushed to Elgar’s dressing room to apologise. He found Elgar standing, bent over a table and carefully writing something into a score. The trumpeter’s earnest apology streamed forth.

Elgar looked up from the score and smiled. ‘Thank you,' he said.
‘Apologise was the least I could do,’ replied the trumpeter.

‘No apology necessary,' said Elgar reassuringly. ‘The longer note you played was an improvement,' and pointing to the score on the table with his pen he said, ‘I have already written it in!’

Mistakes cannot always be avoided, but they can sometimes help us enhance things in unexpected ways (just as they did for Elgar and his symphony). The next time you or anyone else makes a mistake ask yourself the following questions:
  • How could its results or consequences be used to improve things?
  • Has it uncovered a potential solution?
  • Has it presented an opportunity to talk to someone or do something that you would not otherwise have had?
  • Can you learn anything from the mistake and its causes that could be useful to you in the future?
  • How could you exploit what is interesting about the mistake and its causes?


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