I had a discussion about this with one of my students yesterday and I thought it was worth mentioning on the blog.

In striving for your best performance, consider two separate terms:  a) mistake,  b) screw-up

A mistake is something you play that doesn’t turn out quite like you intended.  Perhaps you land the fill at the wrong time, or you play two kick hits in a groove when you meant to play only one.  Whatever the case, the main characteristic of a mistake (as I am defining it) is that the end result – what you actually played – doesn’t necessarily sound bad.  Maybe it was technically wrong, but no one would notice a problem… and so you’re probably the only person in the room who knows that it happened.  This kind of thing, what I’m calling a mistake, happens all the time, to all of us.  It’s not a good thing – we should work to avoid this – but we should all recognize that mistakes are, on a certain level, inevitable.

The second term is a screw-up.  This is different from a mistake only in that it’s obvious to everyone.  It’s something you didn’t intend, and the audience knows it.  Whether it’s a hit at the wrong time, or a dropped beat, or a flubbed fill, whatever… it’s something that everybody within earshot hears, and they all know that it shouldn’t have happened.

There are a few lessons I want to point out regarding these terms:

1)  Good drummers know the difference between mistakes and screw-ups.  Good drummers know which parts of the song MUST be played a certain way and they also know where there is some margin for variation.  Strive to know enough about the song and the core elements of your parts that you can tell the difference too.  Don’t get down on yourself for a mistake… no one is perfect.  A screw-up however, is something that you need to pay attention to.

2)  A mistake can quickly become a screw-up if you’re not careful.  Playing something that you didn’t intend might not sound bad to the audience, but the surprise/distraction of playing it might knock you off balance enough to cause you to play something else you didn’t intend… something that DOES sound bad to the audience.  Be on the lookout for mistakes so that you can quickly recover.

3)  While a mistake is going to happen now and then, even to the pros, a screw-up really never NEEDS to happen.  A mistake is the result of a slight mental error, but a screw-up is a huge mental error (and mostly a careless one). Again, no one is perfect, but the kind of error that produces a note wrong enough that everyone notices… I believe it can always be avoided. For example, a slight stumble while walking up some stairs is something that we’ve all experienced, but I think it is reasonable that someone could go their entire life without actually falling all the way down the stairs and getting scraped and bruised. The important distinction is whether you’re paying enough attention each and every time you’re on the stairs. Are you diligent to clear you mind of distractions when you approach a staircase? Are you alert for things like ice, an untied shoelace, or an object on the stairs that you might trip on? You get the idea.

I think this 3rd lesson is the most important. It will do wonders for your reputation as a player if you successfully eliminate screw-ups. If mistakes are errors that only you know about, and screwing up becomes something that you never do, then the word on the street will soon be that you don’t make any errors at all. Also, realizing that screw-ups are avoidable is the key to actually avoiding them. Consider an NBA player and a surgeon. The NBA player misses shots all the time… but then again he expects that he will. A surgeon on the other hand will go an entire career without ever botching a surgery. I believe the difference is that surgeons are taught from day one that an error in surgery is a costly error… and it cannot be tolerated. Therefore, the ball player hits the court with the expectation that he probably won’t make every shot he takes that game, but the surgeon arrives at the hospital with the determination that he WILL NOT allow any errors in his surgeries for the day. I believe these two mentalities have enormous impact on the results.

SUMMARY:  Know the difference between mistakes and screw-ups, and make a conscious effort to eliminate the latter.