It came as no surprise to find that ‘error’ took on a new significance. When mistakes slipped in, fruitful possibilities always lay ‘at hand’. Instead of stumbling around to correct the fault, the error could be incorporated, exploited. It could be drawn into the improvisation such that ‘a new practice was . . . added to the hand’s repertoire of ways . . . A hand was developing that was possessed of mobile ways with the topography, was permitting the attempt, at least, to make the best of things.’ – Jeremy Begbie, Theology, Music, and Time, p. 229.
There are no wrong notes – Thelonius Monk
In a detailed discussion of classically trained pianist David Sudlow’s attempts to learn jazz, Begbie hints at something beautiful and profound, then moves on. As the theme of the work is the ways music helps us grasp matters of temporality in our working through of the Christian confession, it is understandable. All the same, I wanted to highlight it here precisely because it is important. No, it is central to the whole practice of Christian living, and is something that music, particularly improvised music, can teach us better than anything.
One of the worst things we Christians are told is that we have to be “good”. Not just morally upright, which is certainly important; not just exercising good judgment, which is true whether one is Christian or not. No, our “goodness” must extend to and through all our actions, our thoughts, our plans, each part must be as good as the whole. After all, it was Jesus who said that was are to be perfect, as our Father in Heaven is perfect. This leaves us, even at the best of times, neurotic as we struggle and bewail the multiple failures, big and small, in our lives.
As a student musician, one of the things we are told, usually in the final rehearsals in the run-up to a performance, is that if a mistake is made, don’t acknowledge it. Just keep going. While perfection is always the goal – why else practice for hours on end, going over each detail to get it just so? – the reality is that it is just that: a goal. As long as the performers do their best, a mistake here or there might not even be noticed by the audience; or if it is, it might not be noticed as a mistake. Play through, keep going, reach the end, accept the applause.
Would that we were taught so in life. Be good – be perfect! – but remember we live, as Luther taught, as those both justified and as sinners. Mistakes are inevitable. Even big, honking ones. Can those mistakes be fruitful, as Sudlow discovered “mistakes” became fruitful for new melodic ideas? Not always. Sometimes our errors are so big we need to stop, acknowledge them, and do our utmost to correct them. Most of the time, our errors are no larger than those of any other person. Keep living, and if we have faith that God is with us, those mistakes may well be fruitful for new life precisely because God is a God of grace.
One of my favorite musicians is the guitarist Eric Johnson. A perfectionist to the point that he will delay concerts for minutes as he tries to tune his guitar just so, he nevertheless produces music of astounding originality and power. Here he is in performance at Austin City Limits, playing “Zap”, which won the Grammy in 1987 for best Rock Instrumental Performance:
If you watched his performance closely, you would have noticed several times he grimaces and shakes his head. He has obviously played something he didn’t like, or even – gasp! – a wrong note. Driving himself to perfection, Johnson has not allowed for the possibility that a wrong note might well not be a wrong note at all.
It is important to strive, always, for perfection. It is also important, always, to grant the Spirit to be in the space in between our errors and the perfections toward which we strive. Should we get down on ourselves for our mistakes? Sometimes, sure. Should we just give it all up for lost because we made a mistake, whether something small or large? Never. If we are faithful, the gap between our errors and the perfection toward which we strive is filled with the Holy Spirit, granting life, assuring us in the voice of Monk, that there are no wrong notes. We can play on, using those mistakes – maybe even the big ones – as fruitful for new ideas, new life, and always always always hope.