Improv and the Fear of Making a Mistake

Ryan Eidson  —  January 12, 2017

A private music instructor, Mrs. Dixon (who retired from teaching in the public schools), told me yesterday her students don’t like to do improvisation. I asked her, why not? She said, “They’re afraid of making a mistake.”

I replied, “It’s hard to make a mistake if you know what key you’re in!”

She said that they just can’t get over messing up.

Most of her students are in either grade school or high school and take late afternoon voice, piano, and other forms of musical instruction.

When Did We Become Afraid of Messing Up?

When did we learn to stop taking risks and making mistakes in public? Young children sing solos during play without thinking about it. They also build things to see how tall they can make the tower of blocks before it will fall over. They scribble on paper, and show you their art without regard to coloring in the lines.

Then, somewhere in school, we learned to play (or sing) what was written, to build according to blueprints, and to stay in the lines. We learned the sciences well (which is good), yet we forgot to continue our art as “art”—because that kind of behavior is not encouraged or rewarded in the system.

It’s as if we want to step out and lead, to do what we know we need to do, yet our local culture (school system, work environment, family, town atmosphere, etc.) discouraged us from finding our own voice.

It’s difficult to give a standardized test for art: visual, musical, creative writing, etc. Yet these are some of the soft skills that become more important in the marketplace as each day passes in our post-industrial economy.

Encourage Improv and Creativity

What if our high school students would improv in musical solos and in theater? What if teachers and parents encouraged them to make art that was outside the lines, after they learned the historical and standard scales and methods? What would happen if school rewarded them for creativity and expression?

After all, my blog itself is improv, practicing in public. I have built on my influences and created new art (writing) of my own.

If I stayed in the lines, I wouldn’t have created books of my own.

If tomorrow’s musicians never step into the land of improv, all we’d have left are cover bands. That would be an uninspiring environment to work in. I need to hear fresh material (and I bet you do, too).

Move past the fear of making a mistake and create something of your own. We need to hear (or see) it.

Ryan Eidson


I have the unique ability to make complex ideas easy to understand. I am the author of A Couple with Common Cents and live in rural Missouri.