When you’re in a jam session, you often hear what you think are mistakes (or wrong notes). They could be errant notes, chords that seem out of place, or just something that throws the entire tempo of the group off. These could come from you, or the other musicians. When they occur, however, it’s pretty easy to dismiss them as wrong. We should be trying to play as many “right” notes as possible, right?
But if we want to improve as musicians and make our jam sessions better, what if we looked at mistakes differently?
Jazz vibraphonist Stefon Harris discusses this issue in a TED Talk titled:
“There Are No Mistakes on The Bandstand”
Live onstage with a quartet, Harris demonstrates that whether a note is perceived as a mistake depends upon how the musicians that are playing react to it.
For example, Harris has the pianist introduce a dissonant F# into the music while the rest of the band is playing a palette predominantly in the key of F. When the band continues to play in F, the F# sounds very clearly like a wrong note. However, when they begin the jam a second time, the introduction of the F# leads the band to modulate and incorporate the new note into the already existing palette. In this second version, the F# sounds completely in tune, simply because the musicians reacted to it and let the music flow around it.
Harris says that mistakes only occur “if each individual musician is not aware and accepting enough of his fellow band member to incorporate the idea, and [they] don’t allow for creativity.”
According to Harris, a “mistake” is not something negative but instead an opportunity, as long as the collective can identify and respond to it. If a new note or phrase or chord is introduced without the other musicians reacting to it, only then would Harris label it a mistake, because it is a missed opportunity creatively.
What Harris doesn’t say is that, to react to new ideas in a jam session, you need some knowledge of music theory. After all, in order to break the rules and adapt on the fly, you have to learn the rules first. If I don’t have that solid educational background, I might get called out in the jam session, which might be embarrassing. But don’t worry! Fortunately, with technology, there are so many new ways to easily pick up some theory knowledge.
Here’s what I think you should take away from this article: being a successful musician in a ensemble setting is about being adaptable, a dedicated listener, and playing with intention. This doesn’t mean you should censor your own creative ambition. But if you want to add in your own new ideas, you can’t micromanage the other musicians to play exactly what you want. As Harris says in the video, jamming is about –
“being here in the moment, accepting one another and allowing creativity to flow.”
So good luck at your next jam session! Hope you look at “Wrong Notes” a little different now 🙂