Hate making mistakes? Me too.

But unless you never attempt anything hard, making mistakes comes with living a full life. I’ve made a lot of them, but I’m lucky to have a daily reminder of the importance of being free to make those mistakes. It comes from the live music played every day in my family room, courtesy of my fifteen-year-old son, Cort.

Each day I hear a variety of popular songs from the radio, movie themes, and video game soundtracks that Cort arranges himself. He then videos certain ones to upload to his YouTube channel that has over a million and a half views. He wants a career in music and I have no doubt he’ll be successful.

Cort the Pianist Playing the Avengers Theme and End Credit Score-No mistakes here
Cort performing the Avengers Infinity War Theme and End Credit Score

But early in his piano lessons, I worried he wouldn’t stick with them. He seemed reluctant to practice. I encouraged him often to do it. Nudges here, more forceful demands there, but always a struggle. Until one definitive day when it all changed.

I’d like to tell you my astute parenting skills got him over the hump, but it was something else. Something stumbled upon through sheer luck (or was it?) that made him eager to practice. And through it, I learned a lesson.

A litte backstory…

Cort loved all things musical as a toddler. Moving round robin through his electronic toys spread out in the family room, he’d press colorful buttons on each device, one-by-one, to summon whatever quirky tune hide inside. After the tune played, he’d mimic the notes in perfect pitch with his voice.

A child's toy before there was such a thing as a mistake
Cort pressed a lot of buttons as a toddler

Once he discovered our vehicles could play music, the first thing he’d do when we pulled from the driveway was ask us to turn it on. In the rare times when the radio was silent, he’d fill the space by humming various tunes.

One time he started rapping the children’s song, Wheels on the Bus, from the back seat on a family drive. After everyone finished the belly laughter, I asked for an encore so I could video. I hope beyond hope that gem is not lost to the wasteland of neglected hard-drive backups.

Eight years ago, I had a piano instructor want to hire me to mentor her on writing. Instead, I asked if we could barter, her giving piano lessons to Cort. He was seven at the time. I didn’t know the extent of his musical ability, but was eager for him to explore it. Looking back, I was the more excited of the two for his piano lessons.

Since I was in the middle of launching Zenergy at the time, and had yet to draw a salary, I skimped on the keyboard, reluctant to spend too much in case he didn’t like piano lessons. I combed Craigslist for a used keyboard and spent a whole $20 on it. It was bare-bones and had half the keys a full keyboard has, but I convinced myself he wouldn’t need more to start the simple tunes of beginning lessons.

the keyboard was a mistake
Not the original, but you get the idea. Actually, this one much nicer than the original one.

The first time I took him to a lesson, I hung around, listening as the instructor worked with him on her upright piano. Afterward, she told me he had some natural ability, which made me happy.

There didn’t seem to be a problem with practicing at first, since it was a new activity. But his enthusiasm faded quickly. Soon I was bugging him to go practice, trying to make him do it at least once a week, right before his lessons. Like dreading some dull chore, he’d mope up the stairs to the keyboard in his room and plunk out a melody as I listened. He’d begin a tune, make a mistake, then start over. This process repeated itself many times, the mistakes, the restarts, until finally he’d get through the short piece the instructor had assigned. Then he’d bolt to do something else. I wondered often if he should continue the lessons. If I’d been paying for them, they may have ended there, but we kept going.

Time passed, and he did improve, but in all honesty, I was disappointed he didn’t have the passion I thought he would for making music. Then one day after a lesson, the instructor asked me what he used at home for practice. Her face contorted when I told her and I knew I had to get a new piano even before she explained why it hindered his progress.

Dad who makes lots of mistakes
Told you I hate making mistakes

I felt bad. When I came home I took a second look at the used keyboard and realized how inferior it was, being little more than a toy. I immediately went out to buy a keyboard with a full set of 88 weighted keys. It was not cheap. Excited, I brought it home imagining great leaps in Cort’s piano skills due to a pricey new keyboard.

Nope.

After the newness wore off within the week, once again, I sensed a reluctance to practice.

One day, as he played with some legos on the floor of his room, he noticed something and asked me to come there.

“What’s this?” he said, pointing to a small hole on the underside of the piano.

“That’s a headphone jack. Plug headphones in, then when you wear them the sound will go to your ears instead of the piano’s speakers.”

“Do we have any?”

I dug up an old pair and gave them to him. Curious, he plugged them in and started playing the now silent keyboard. I went on with my day.

Headphones to hide mistakes
Hmmmmm…

 

But something notable happened a week after.

“Cort,” I called to him. “You need to practice. Your piano lesson is tomorrow.”

“Already did.”

“When? I haven’t heard you play.”

“I used the headphones.”

“Oh.”

This repeated itself in some variation for a month, until finally, I asked him to let us hear his practice. Secretly, I thought he may be snowing me on practicing. When music started drifting downstairs from the piano, I straightened up in my seat, ears perked. He had either taken a tremendous leap in his piano skills or he had hit a demo button on the keyboard to play a recording.

I shot upstairs and popped inside his room where he stopped playing.

“What?”

“That sounds incredible. When did you get so good?”

He smiled.

“How much have you been practicing?” I asked.

“Every day.”

“Wait… You go from needing a reminder to practice one day a week to practicing everyday?”

He smiled again and gave a little shrug.

Over the next few months he continued to practice with the headphones, and every few weeks I’d ask to hear. The leaps he showed in his piano skills amazed me. I keep asking him what had made him want to practice more, but his answers varied, not pointing to any one thing. It bugged me not knowing what had made the difference. At least it did until the day it hit me as I walked past his room to see him with the headphones on, his fingers rapidly moving up and down the keyboard while it remained silent to me.

In that moment I knew the difference-maker.

shining the light on the value of mistakes
Double-Hmmmmm…

Before the discovery of the headphone jack, Cort had been reluctant to play aloud with all his mistakes on show for everyone in the house. The headphones had given him a gift in the ability to practice without anyone in the house hearing those mistakes. Once we couldn’t hear the mistakes anymore, he felt free to make them. And once he felt free to make them, his ability soared.

I have been thinking about this for years. If we all could own a pair of magical headphones or invisibility cloak or some other device so no one could hear or see our mistakes, what could we accomplish when we no longer worried about making them?

A lot, I bet. 

But there are no magic headphones for life. Invisibility cloaks are still a few years away (really). People are going to witness our mistakes if we dare to do something great. We must always remind ourselves those mistakes are necessary if we want to improve and grow. Actually, I believe they fuel growth. For a young kid who simply wants to make those mistakes in private, headphones are an answer. But there are no easy answers for most adults other than embracing mistakes as a fact of life while we try to build up immunity to ours being seen, heard, and sometimes ridiculed.

Every day, when I hear Cort play beautiful piano arrangements, I’m reminded of how different the outcome could have been had he not discovered the headphone jack. And I vow to not let the fear of making mistakes stop me from growing into the person I am meant to be.

 

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