Perfection as a Way of Life

After the post last week about recovering from bad performances, several folks have asked for more information and specifics in regards to the approaches I mentioned. This post will be part of a series on methods we can use to treat each practice session and/or rehearsal as a performance – hopefully making each performance less tense and more rewarding in the process.

This post will focus on the underlying philosophy behind the approach. The next post will go through specific learning activities that came from these philosophies.

One of my core philosophies as a teacher is to do everything possible to help the students play as freely and loosely as possible. We (as teachers and players) spend a lot of time in lessons and practice making sure that we or our students are physically relaxed and as tension-free as possible. However, we don’t spend nearly as much time making sure that our minds and psyches are stress-free.

I love when new transfer students play a piece for me and when they finish I ask them, “What were you thinking about when you were playing?”

Then they list off everything their last teacher told them to do, “I was making sure that the melody was louder than the left hand and that the pedal wasn’t smearing notes together and that I wasn’t speeding up and that I played with dynamics and emotion and that this one set of articulations was clear and… and… and.”

If we’re trying to execute and remember a musical checklist to make our teachers, our adjudicators, our parents or anyone else happy; we will be adding so many layers that very little music will make it through all the noise in our heads or bodies to our audience (or even ourselves).

In my opinion, performing at a high level is a matter of attitude and intent. If we are trying to exude our story, our joy and our love for what we’re playing; then we will play in a way that directly connects whatever we’re hearing and feeling to the audience through our instrument or voice.

It makes sense that we keep adding things to our plate as the music we play gets more complicated – which it naturally will as we progress. However, becoming acquainted with more information doesn’t always translate to being a better performer. Sometimes, we can actually become worse at performing as our pieces get more challenging.

What I aim for in my students is internalization and flexibility. That’s when I know we have taken away layers rather than added them. I believe that as music and repertoire gets more complicated, our minds need to become less overwhelmed. But to get to that point, we have to push the limits in what we can process while still performing at a high level. Remember my theme from the last post – everything is a performance. We don’t get ready for a performance, we’re always performing – no matter where we are in the process. We are always processing everything at performance level – with the intent to perform.

When my students would come back from big performances or auditions, I would always ask how it went. It was sort of a running joke for many of them that usually went something like this, “Those things seem easy after everything you make me do.”

It’s not that I was hard on them by demanding that they did something over and over again until they got it “right”. I always operated from the premise that there was no “right”. There is simply the “now”. Rather than hold the philosophy that perfection was fixed and something to be attained, we made perfection move. Perfection has more to do with being in the moment rather than forcing the moment to align with our idea of perfection. Perfection has more to do with making the articulations, balance, dynamics, etc., work for our musical intent rather than our intent being the execution of those musical elements at some superficial or imposed standard. By doing this, stress level goes way down and the quality of performance goes way up.

In an oversimplification, I tend to look for two possible trends when students are playing their pieces…

  1. Is there a chain reaction of events during the performance that is overwhelming their minds and/or technique – chipping away at their focus and ability to communicate the piece effectively?
  2. Is there a chain reaction of events during their performance that is leading them to become more engaged and entertained by their own playing so that they are feeling and communicating their desired intent?

We obviously want number 2. My whole teaching and lesson philosophy is to help students align with number 2 as much as possible.

If you come from a traditional background, this may feel really foreign and overwhelming. Probably because it is – I can relate. Most transfer students take about a year before they really start to soar with this approach. I do feel that it’s worth it and as long as we’re patient with ourselves, things will start to come together before you know it.

The next post will cover specific activities we can use to help develop these approaches in ourselves and our students. In the meantime, simply start making your amassed techniques and sounds work for your musical vision rather than working solely for them.

Click the links below to read the other posts in this series:

Part One: Rebounding from Bad Performances

Part Three: Sound Bad as a Daily Practice