I have to admit, I’m one of those self-professed perfectionists. I like things to be done perfectly and I demand as much from myself. However, I’ve come to the conclusion that in music, striving for perfection is only half of our work. The other half is to know when to let go and let our fingers and feelings to make music. In the practice room, when we are trying to prepare a piece of music for a performance or a recording, we need to strive for perfection. We need to decide what is “perfection” to us and we need to learn how to achieve it. Is it playing every single note cleanly and with beautiful sound? Is it articulating everything the right way, playing with correct dynamics, the correct rhythm, the right amount of vibrato? In the practice room, we have to do all of the above and more. If we don’t strive for perfection in the practice room, then what exactly are we trying to accomplish when we practice? However, if perfection of mechanical execution is the end in and of itself, we are bound to end up with an emotionless and sterile performance, where everything is “correct” and “perfect” but doesn’t arouse any feelings in the listener.
When we practice, it is important to be self-critical and to pay attention to every detail of our work. We need to teach our fingers to play each note in the correct time, with the correct articulation, volume, sound, color… When we practice, we have the luxury of solitude and time to slow down and allow our brain to control every aspect of what we are doing. This way we can teach our hands the mechanics behind each movement in slow motion and then speed it up as our muscles learn the movement. Ideally, if we always do the “perfect” motion in practice, then that’s what our fingers learn and they won’t know how to do anything else in performance. However, it doesn’t always work out that way. With the prospect of an audience listening to us come nerves, adrenaline, sweaty and cold fingers, all of which come in between us and that perfect performance. In order to control that, we try too hard not to miss a note and play everything “perfectly” which, in tern, strips the performance from excitement and emotion and leaves the audience wanting. Not to mislead you, I, too, have been beguiled by performers with perfect execution on stage. There is something alluring about watching someone play everything perfectly and not buzz a single note. It shows restraint and discipline. That said, I think there should be more to a successful performance.
In order to avoid having a seemingly perfect but sterile performance, we have to learn to let go when we are performing and trust that all that work we did in the practice room pays off. Sometimes that means that we might not play so cleanly, we might buzz or miss a note, etc… but if the right emotion is there and the performance has passion, nuance, and lyricism, those little mishaps will be forgiven by the listener. Next step is to learn to forgive those mistakes ourselves. We are our own worst critics and we can be overly critical of ourselves after a not so “perfect” performance. If we always criticize our performance to a tee, our own criticism will eventually cripple us and prevent us from having an enjoyable performance experience. However, that doesn’t mean we should be alright with anything that happens. We should review our performances constructively. Listen not only to missed notes, but to the phrasing, lyricism, the music… In order to grow, we need to learn from our mistakes and try to improve them the next time. We have to strike a balance; a balance between criticism and forgiveness, perfection and musicianship.