Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Pursuit of Perfection

When it comes to talks on why music is important, I thought I had heard it all. And so I was delighted to encounter a new twist in Bruce Pearson’s talk at the Saskatchewan Music Conference. In comparing music with athletics, he notes that we admire a baseball player with a .333 batting average. Hitting the ball one out of three times is sufficient for adulation and a seven or eight figure salary. But we musicians are expected to hit that Bb every time. Likewise, who would go to a concert where the orchestra started and stopped three times and then had to punt? 97% right earns an A+ in the academic world, but means a dissatisfied audience in the concert world. Get the idea?

We are thrilled by the athlete’s mere attempt at perfection, the discipline to try to swish the ball through the net every time or get the golf ball in the hole in three hits or so in each of 18-holes. But we don’t expect them to achieve it. Music also sets a high bar, but is less tolerant when the musicians fail to leap over it. Perhaps if we recognized this, music would be given its due as one of the most demanding and exalted of human disciplines and given its proper attention in schools.

Though the athlete and musician share discipline and training in common, I like to think that the musician has the trickier task. We admire style in athletes, but it doesn’t really matter so much as long as they score the goal, make the basket or cross the finish line first. But for the musician, it’s not enough to just play the notes impeccably. There is an invisible element outside of the practice room that makes or breaks the concert, that intangible but deeply felt element of soul, of magic, of something else present. And that aesthetic element, that spiritual element, is different from perfection. In fact, perhaps it’s the opposite, the presence of our vulnerable imperfection even as we play the passage with practiced technique.

I’ve always leaned heavily to the side of inspiration and spontaneity and feeling in my small pursuits of perfection and it is only in my older years (too late?) that I’m understanding the value of attention to detail, practice and discipline. I think this was my reaction to the dull and mechanical way music students are often led to the gates of mastery. All that practice and someone who grew up singing (not practicing) in church gospel choir can communicate with so much soul. But we need both. Neither perfect notes nor heartfelt feeling alone are enough. It is in the conversation between the pursuit of perfection and the acceptance and embrace of our imperfection that things get interesting.

I imagine it is all the years of teaching children that has allowed me to understand both sides. For children are nothing if not reminders of the imperfections of us human creatures. We can work for hours weaving the strands of the Great American Lesson Plan and a tiny three-year old can unravel it all in five seconds. The pursuit of that perfect plan is worthy, honorable and necessary, but the understanding of how to adjust to the actual needs, mood, chemistry of each kid and group of kids is where the real art lies. These days, young teachers are being strangled in someone’s fantasy of the perfect lesson and neglecting to watch the children. But this is the subject for another posting.

Dr. Pearson’s point is that the focus, discipline and sense of purpose that pursuing perfection entails creates students that are motivated and engaged, students who feel connected to a larger community and part of the team, students who we are proud to claim as leaders of the future and give us hope. Students who miss the experience of being part of the band are vulnerable to all the things we fear for the next generation. And yet we continue to cut music programs nationwide.

More to say, but I have to go practice the piano. With feeling. 

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