Your audience can’t hear what’s in your head. They can only hear what you actually play, and that could be a good thing, or it could be not so good.

What is in your head as you play a piece of music? Is it the “soundtrack” of the first time you heard the piece played on a recording or in a session or concert? Is it your version of how the piece or song should sound? Is it your own memory of how you’ve played it in the past?

Performers need to make conscious decisions about what to hear in our heads, because it affects what comes out our fingers! But at the same time, we have to remember that no one else knows what’s running through our brains.

What’s good about that fact is that when you play notes or chords you didn’t intend to play, or even get lost in a whole alternative melody or arrangement, how would we know you didn’t intend that? You might be convinced that we all know what you know and are therefore appalled at how wrongly you played something, but really, we don’t.

We don’t unless you give it away with your body language, facial expressions and comments. If when you err, you visibly or audibly react, you’re telling us all about something we probably hadn’t noticed. If you hesitate or go back and correct those unplanned or skipped notes, you’re subjecting us to unnecessary discontinuity. If you apologize, you’re embarrassing yourself and therefore us as well.

The appearance that many professionals give of playing perfectly is only that: appearance. Often what they are doing is using unplanned notes as inspirations to create variations and improvisations. The ability to do so is a result of the confidence borne of adequate practice and of knowledge beyond just how to play the right notes. Music is so much more than the right notes.

I know many people who, when they play something unexpected or miss a note, think they have failed. They have put themselves in a prison of their own making. What a shame. Music can’t be perfect, but it ought to be gratifying to play (otherwise, why play it?). We can allow ourselves that joy in playing by giving ourselves permission to play with more freedom. Despite our best efforts we all make mistakes, but if we treat errors as opportunities for variation and improv, we experience less stress and more gratification.

If you make some errors, who cares? You are the one who gives the clues about how important it is. If you’re ashamed of errors, the audience will be embarrassed for you. But if you ignore errors, they will also ignore them (unless there is an occasional jerk who thinks it’s his duty to point it out to you later. In that case, consider the source and don’t take it personally). And if you good-naturedly laugh off the errors that stand out like the feathers on a cat’s chin, the audience will laugh as well.

So… what’s the flip side of this? The negative aspect of the fact that an audience can’t hear what’s in your head is that many musicians never stop running in their head the first arrangement or recording they heard of the piece, or are “hearing” an idealized version of the piece, and don’t realize it isn’t how they themselves sound. All the audience gets is what they actually hear.

One of the most common examples I can think of is someone who learns a tune/piece they’ve heard someone else do well, and assumes that their being able to play the notes means it sounds just like what they originally heard. It doesn’t. It can’t. Every musician is an individual and you will, no matter what, sound like yourself. We must hear our own music. We must assess what we actually sound like.

When you play something, be sure you’re creating a piece that has structure, context and content, even if it’s as simple as a single-line melody. It doesn’t have to be complex. But you do well to hear it with the audience’s ears. They can’t fill in the chords or choose between several random notes to figure out which were the right ones. If you don’t use those random notes (mistakes) creatively to make some kind of structure, the audience can’t discern any structure, and structure is the key to understanding and integrating a piece of music. Pretend you meant it, use it well, and move on. Like the famous cat Haiku:

Grace personified

Leaps into the window pane

I meant to do that.

To reiterate: how do you reconcile between the first idea (they can’t hear what you intended and that’s good) and the second idea (they can’t hear what you intended and that’s not good)? Practice, practice, practice… and learn to play with the freedom of someone who knows their music structures well, so you can improvise around errors, yet play well enough to make a piece sound like a cohesive entity. It’s not difficult; even beginners can do this.

We can’t hear what’s in your head. Use that fact to your advantage! You’ll be a happier musician.