“There Are No Wrong Notes”

When teaching my course on creativity I have discovered an almost universal truth: My students all have an intense desire to create and express themselves through their chosen art medium(s) but they almost all don’t do it. As we journey through the course we attempt to excavate the reasons for their artistic timidity, and without fail I discover that most are plagued fear.

  • Fear of doing it wrong
  • Fear of not being good enough
  • Fear of failing at it
  • Fear of what’s deep inside of me, fear it might come out
  • Fear of looking silly
  • Fear of what my parents would say
  • Fear of what my friends might think
  • Fear that it will be bad
Circle in the Round
Circle in the Round (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Throughout the course, as I talk about expressing yourself creatively or artistically, I incessantly quote jazz great Miles Davis:

“There are no wrong notes.”

I was reminded of this yesterday in a Wall Street Journal interview I read with another jazz great, Herbie Hancock, who recently gave a lecture about the wisdom of Miles Davis at Harvard:

Mr. Hancock recounted, for example, one extraordinary moment in Stockholm in 1967, during a performance by the [Miles Davis] quintet. “This night was magical,” he remembered. “We were communicating almost telepathically, playing ‘So What'”—one of the group’s signature pieces. “Wayne [Shorter] had taken his solo. Miles was playing and building and building, and then I played the wrong chord. It was so, so wrong. In an instant, time stood still and I felt totally shattered. Miles took a breath. And then he played this phrase that made my chord right. It didn’t seem possible. I still don’t know how he did it. But Miles hadn’t heard it as a wrong chord—he took it as an unexpected chord. He didn’t judge what I played. To use a Buddhist turn of phrase, he turned poison into medicine.”

Wendy and I talked about this story over breakfast and she reminded me that Davis was simply applying to music a concept that she and I know well from the stage. It’s the concept of “Yes And.” Like a song, a stage performance is usually meticulously orchestrated. Lines and movement are carefully prescribed to deliver the intended effect to the audience. Sometimes, however, something happens on stage which you didn’t expect:

In the moment of performance when you stand on that stage with the audience watching  you can’t stop the performance to shout “No, but wait! That’s wrong. Let’s go back and try it again.” When the unexpected happens, actors are taught to say “Yes, and I’ll go along with it. I will respond to what just happened so as to make it work into the scene. The concept of “Yes And” is particularly critical for actors who learn improvisational theatre in which there is no script or blocking to follow. You must say “Yes And” to whatever the other person on stage is doing and respond.

When Herbie Hancock played the “wrong” chord Miles Davis said “Yes, and I’m going to change the notes I’m playing to envelope that chord and redeem it. I’m going to make it right. There are no wrong notes.”

I have learned that the concept  of “Yes And” goes much deeper than jazz and stage. God, the master artist and Creator, has exemplified “Yes And” in my entire life journey. When I have totally screwed up time and time again God has responded with “Yes, and I’m going to let you learn the hard lessons that come from your choices.” When I have wandered from the path into dark places God has responded with “Yes, and I’m going to ultimately use your experiences to teach you wisdom.” When I make foolish choices God has responded “Yes, and you will find maturity in the dissonance your decisions create.”

“Yes And” applies to the art of daily life. When the fourteen year old says, out of the blue, “I want to go to Thailand next summer” I don’t say “No!” I say, “Yes, and I’m going to help you figure out if you’re really supposed to go.” When friends, spouses, children, or co-workers do the unexpected, there is wisdom in learning to say “Yes, and I’m going to give up my misguided notion that I can somehow control you, make you do my will, or know God’s prescribed path for your life.”

Please don’t read what I’m not writing. Obviously, parents have responsibility to teach our young children well and to protect them with appropriate rules and boundaries. Relationships, like the flow of music or the blocking of a scene, require a give and take between those involved. I have found, however, that when it comes to relationships we are often tempted to eat of the forbidden fruit. We are deceived into thinking that we are the god of our children, our spouses, our friends, and our co-workers.

  • “No, but I AM the only one who knows what’s best for  her.”
  • “No, but I AM the one who will choose the path for him.”
  • “No, but I AM the one who has judged correctly.”
  • “No, but I AM to be obeyed.”
  • “No, but I AM right.”

I love Herbie Hancock’s story and the wisdom of Miles Davis. When we are raised and enmeshed in the rigidity of a black and white “No But” world we quickly learn to stuff the creative impulses that Creator God knit into our souls when He sculpted us in His own image. We learn to fear the “No, but” which we have been taught will inevitably follow when we play “wrong” notes, paint the “wrong” way, draw outside the lines, or miss an entrance.

When I was younger I thought that the sad result of the Garden of Eden was that we all choose to do “wrong” and “bad” things. The further I get in the journey, the more I’ve come to realize that the true tragedy of The Fall is not the bad things that we do, but our failure to fully realize all that is good and pure and powerful and possible as children of the Creator who said “Yes and let us make man and woman in our image, in our likeness.”

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9 thoughts on ““There Are No Wrong Notes””

  1. Excellent post, Tom! I’ve heard that saying “Yes” in theatrical improvisation is key, but I’ve never thought of it in terms of my own musical path, or in life in general. Adding the “And” after Yes is a whole other element that enables us to be communicative a responsive in our endeavors, be it theater, music, or raising kids. Thanks for the insights!

  2. Exactly. Thanks kindred soul. I taught my students “Ndio Na” in Kiswahili this week – ‘YES AND’. This is a beautiful exploration of artistic fear.

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