Art Works Blog

An Open Letter of Gratitude to the Person Who Taught Me the Art of Making Mistakes

Dear Mrs. Baker,

My first piano teacher didn’t ask much of me, but I enjoyed my lessons with her. My mother (a public school music teacher with five children and a very busy schedule) didn’t realize that I wasn’t learning very much until the day she attended my teacher’s spring studio recital. The ride home after the recital was pretty quiet, and I knew that something was up.

Not long after, my mother told me she’d arranged for me to meet with another piano teacher named Helen Baker (no relation). I was already aware that your students were the best in town and several went on to win scholarships to leading music schools. But you had a reputation for being very demanding, so I was nervous. Before I knew it, I was seated on the piano bench in your studio playing the same piece I’d played at the recital a few weeks before. I will never forget your comment after I finished. You said, “You play very musically, Ann, but that had very little to do with what Joseph Haydn composed.” Ouch.

Over my five years as your student, I grew immensely as a musician and, like so many people who have benefited from a great music teacher, I learned lessons to apply to many other areas of my life as well. What strikes me as most valuable, however, was that you taught me to practice the art of making mistakes. 

For example, rather than undermine my own confidence by worrying about a potential memory slip, you had me prepare for the possibility by memorizing “pick up spots” so, if I did lose my way during a performance, I could jump to a place further in the score and carry on gracefully. “Move ahead, not backwards!” you preached, “because if you start a piece over again you’re apt to stumble in the very same place the second time around.”

Arts leaders today talk a lot about being innovative and I realize now that I got a head start in my understanding of innovation during my piano lessons with you.  Innovative approaches come from people trying new things and being willing to make mistakes--even planning for them. The process of innovation is highly iterative and requires skills, clear goals, multiple approaches, and then analyzing what works, what doesn’t and why. And the more you can accelerate the process of failure, the faster you come up with strategies to help you move ahead. These principles of innovation are precisely how you taught me to practice and to perform! 

Innovative leaders have an appetite for learning new things and are often part of a learning community, which is something you created among your students as well. We encouraged each other, shared strategies, and celebrated one another’s successes. I was so surprised you selected me for the prized role of closing your studio recital. Other students who wanted that honor (and who I worried might have been more deserving) were so supportive that it would have been impossible for me not to succeed.

Thank you for teaching me about innovation long before it was “in.”  I know that I am only one among the legions of students who benefitted from your remarkable teaching, but there is no one more grateful to you than I!

Ann Meier Baker is the president and CEO of Chorus America. She joins the NEA in January 2015 as the director of Music and Opera.

Who are you grateful for in your arts life? Leave us a comment on the blog or on our Facebook page. 

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