Thoughts on Perfection and Being Human

In the current world of perfectionist auditions and recording quality performance standards, I doubt that Maria Callas would have been much more than a talented wannabe. Her tone was too bright, her vibrato too wobbly. What a tragedy, that musicians such as that are probably being overlooked.

Will Roesch, a tuba student, wrote me a note on Facebook, inquiring about the pros and cons of perfectionism in the music world. He wrote:

I was wondering if you could offer some words of wisdom.

To be blunt I have obsessive compulsive disorder, so I've always struggled with the ideas of perfection, order, symmetry, and so forth. Unfortunately, even within the comforting realm of music it's managed to manifest itself. I've been given a few perspectives on orchestral playing. One teacher insists perfection is the only gateway to an orchestral job; the Principal Tubist of the Chicago Symphony instilled in me there is no such thing as perfection. He told me you can only do your best, and the true mark of an orchestral musician is improving from the last audition/performance/etc.

The perfection thing is ground into me every week; and I know for a normal person it would be stressful, but for someone like me with OCD, it becomes overwhelming.

So how do you do it? Do you put unrealistic demands on yourself in an attempt to reach a specific goal, or is perfection really the goal for which I should be striving?

When I'm playing, if I start to think about the mechanics of what I'm doing, I inevitably make a mistake, but I've noticed when I think of something out of body or just get lost in the moment entirely, things seem to go fine. I like to think of my tuba as a dusty, forgotten leviathan that never gets the spot light, and when the time comes, it's the one singing the song to show what beauty it has to offer, not me.

I have posted my response below. I will add to this over the next few days. I also welcome conversations about these ideas in the comments.

Will- Thanks for the intriguing explorations and questions about the various philosophies of playing music. You really got me thinking.

Since I began studying the Alexander Technique, I've attempted to hone the answers to such questions, both for myself and my students. We performers embody such a paradox by attempting to perfect the expression of seemingly "other-worldly" music with all too human bodies.

I think it was Van Cliburn who said something to the effect of "Music offers enough to fill a lifetime, but one life is not enough to do music justice." Music may or may not be perfectible, but it is always improvable, and certainly worth the trouble.

So, how then do we approach such a difficult and elusive goal? The answer is both philosophical and practical.

We forever strive toward perfection by setting our sights on the heavenly goal of the perfect performance, all the while seeking the most efficient path physically. (I am reminded of Kenny Werner's book, Effortless Mastery)

The second part of that phrase is the real key. The great performers practice not so much to perfect a piece of music, but to render performing it effortless. Ironically, perfection is all the more attainable when we get out of our own way.

Yet, our "efforts" toward "effortlessness" can become a problem in itself. Your frustration with the choice between "thinking about the mechanics" and simply "letting it happen" is symptomatic of that problem. You have the right idea in striving to let it happen in an "out of body" sort of way, but that won't help you if you happen to be hindered by one or more physical misuses.

In that case, you need to allow yourself to step back, as many steps as necessary, possibly back to simply standing or sitting without playing, in order to find your way toward the most efficient and "effortless" use of your self, by which you can move beyond one particular limitation and on to the next. And so on and so on. Backward until you arrive at a place where forward is truly possible, then forward until you find another habit of misuse, all the while remembering that our real goal is not physical ease, but the music itself.

Think of traversing a huge river gorge in a jungle to photograph a beautiful, rare orchid. You can see the other side just a few hundred feet away, but the depth of the gap is insurmountably deep. How do you get there? You cannot just jump; wish as you may to be able to fly. You must weave your way meticulously down one face of the gorge, through many unknown and possibly endless obstacles; then cross the river, which may be a problem in itself, then scale the other side, before arriving just a few hundred feet from where you were. You must take care not to injure yourself along the way, so attention to efficient solutions to the myriad challenges is critical along the way.

Is the orchid worth all that? The only way you can answer is that you enjoyed the process of getting there (I know. Huge cliché) the challenge as well as the journey. Dreaming of the orchid along the journey helps, and it may even offer critical creative inspiration, but patience and perseverance are the real tools. Obsessing over the goal is counter productive. If you lose sleep or hurt yourself, how does that help? (Yet many musicians grow up feeding on self-destructive habits) Suppose you never quite make it? What have you gained along the way?

Seeking to attain the highest goal is vital to our motivation, but it cannot destroy our joy in the seeking, otherwise our efforts are philosophically and spiritually fruitless.

There are too many bitter musicians out there who only sought the orchid and got lost along the way.

(To give a very real example of what I just described, the process of typing my answer to your inquiries could have easily become an issue of misuse in itself, as I slouched in front of the computer typing, compulsively goal oriented instead of process oriented.)

Incidentally, I am still misusing myself in front of the computer as I type this, right after having a great, body expanding yoga class!!

I would like to add that auditions are, in my opinion, tainted by an unrealistic perfectionist culture which has permeated their practice over the past two decades. A great player takes chances. A perfect player rarely does, if ever. I can understand (without condoning) such a cookie cutter benchmark if the position is in a section. But for a principal position, I would much rather an extremely high quality player who pushes the limit a bit each time he/she plays, striving for the ever elusive beauty of the music.

I believe that any phrase can be played a number of ways, some more effective than others, but different versions of which can reach out to the listener with a slightly different version beauty. If that were not the case, then there would be only one version of every piece sold on CD.

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5 comments for “Thoughts on Perfection and Being Human

  1. tuba
    June 24, 2010 at

    international tuba competition
    12-13 march 2011 Paris-Ville d’Avray.
    I have enclosed information regarding the international Tuba competition which be held in the Paris region in march 2011.
    Could you please diffuse this information where possible. Thank you and Sincerely, Marie-Blanche Colonna
    htp://tuba.bloguez.com – http://int.comp.paris.va.free.fr/index.html

  2. June 4, 2010 at

    Ciekawy post, dodalem twoj blog do ulubionych, teraz bede wpadal tu czesciej

  3. September 19, 2009 at

    Being a perfectionist is a problem but like any problem it has a solution. You can always improve your attitude towards things and people by accepting the fact that nothing in this world is fully right or fully wrong. Each person, thing or event has both a postive and negative aspect. What we need to do is focus on the positive aspect and accept the negative aspect the way it is. Definately we need to work on imroving the negative aspect but only as much as it is in our capacity. Rest we can leave as destiny.

  4. January 7, 2009 at

    @Will: Initiative is a better word than chance. Yes, as the bass line, you lead pitch and some rhythm, depending on the part. If the group is dragging or going sharp, you may help by taking initiative to correct it.

  5. Will
    January 7, 2009 at

    I enjoyed the taking a chance advice. My brass band conductor often tells us to take a chance, and as the principal Bb bass, I’ll put your advice into effect to better enhance the chances taken in brass band.

    As a soloist I try to take as many chances as possible in an attempt to enhance my musicianship. An octave up or down here and there, dynamics the composer didn’t write, and of course ornamentation when I feel the inspiration strike.

    As a principal or soloist I find it easiest to take a chance to express myself or lead a group, but as someone who plays the bass line in many ensembles, I’m not always sure what kind of chances to take. Perhaps one day my college and professional experience will reveal it to me. Is it appropriate for someone who plays the bass part to take chances when the ensemble relies on a solid bass part?

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