The following post is an analogy that I often use in teaching my private lessons, and it should be read along side two other posts on this blog: one on Focus and one on Mistakes.

Somebody help me out if my stats are flawed here, but I think a good field goal percentage for an NBA player is something like 50%. A player would be proud of a stat like that, right? That is odd to me. It’s gets even worse in baseball… a season .300 batting average is a celebrated performance. Yes, I know professional sports are difficult and there are many factors working against ball players (like good defense, slumps, etc), but still, those numbers seem awfully low to be boasting about. For example, consider surgery. The generally expected “success stat” for an open heart surgeon would be 100% – meaning, a 99% rating isn’t going to cut it. Nobody wants to hire the 99% guy to do their surgery because nobody wants to be the 1% on the other end of that deal.

Now, why the big discrepancy between sports and medicine? Is anybody really going to suggest that the higher success rate for surgeons is due to open heart surgery being EASIER than putting a basketball in the hoop? I think the issue is the expectation, and the subsequent mentality that accompanies the expectation. When a basketball player misses a shot, they’re bummed, but they just shrug it off. The other players shrug it off too. So do the coaches. “Nobody makes them all,” they say to each other at halftime. But when a surgeon botches something, there is likely going to be a litigation, or at the very least a disciplinary action at the hospital. The surgeon takes mandatory time off and must cope with the ramifications of his/her failure.

My theory here is that because these two realities exist right from the get go, I think it is safe to assume that a surgeon takes his job more seriously. Once again, I’m not just dogging professional athletes and saying that they don’t care about their work. I’m just trying to point out the obvious difference in the frame of mind behind each vocation. A baller is EXPECTING to miss some shots, but a doctor is DETERMINED to make no errors. These differences in mindset go way back, too. Right from day one of medical school the surgeon is trained to settle for nothing less than perfection, whereas the athlete is immediately told to not worry about mistakes – just forget about them and try harder next time.

So… which perspective do you think a musician should have? I’ll tell you this: it has been my experience that the audience’s expectation is more in line with the medical field. Just watch American Idol sometime. Toward the end of the competition, the judges will nit pick at very minor flaws in the vocal performances, while often ignoring the fact that the performer sang 99% of the song correctly. And the live band on that show… they NEVER screw up. When I saw the Police on their reunion tour last year, I thought the show was totally slamming. However, Andy Summers missed a few notes on Message In A Bottle (only mistake I heard all night) and that was the first thing I read in the paper the next day.

I often find, however, both in my students and in the pro musicians that I work with regularly, a desire for the sports approach. There’s an attitude of forgiveness toward mistakes that are considered imminent – an attitude that I believe to be somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy. I’m not advocating a Nazi-like approach to music, where anything less than perfection can’t be tolerated. At the end of the day, nobody is perfect. I’m just suggesting that an EXPECTATION for mistakes will probably result in more mistakes, but a DETERMINATION to avoid them will do the opposite.

SUMMARY: Think like a surgeon and watch your mistake-free performance stats go through the roof.