Perfectly Not Perfect

It’s important to me that the studio be flexible. I like people to feel that they are playing in safe space; free to groan, grumble and gripe if need be. However, there is one word that is banned from use for everyone - including myself, perfect.

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First of all perfection is simply unattainable. It is also a word that is completely subjective. We don’t have the ability nor the time to achieve perfection. Most students, when asked, would tout perfection as a virtue, something that they could wear as a badge - but I see it as something that people actually hide behind. After all, if they are shooting for perfection how could they possibly expect to succeed? I can often see when a student has already made their decision that their piece/work is never going to be perfect, perhaps even satisfactory, so why put so much effort in? It’s a good excuse, a good cover up for what they are really feeling which is fear. Perfectionism masks the fear that we are just not good enough. Some people seem to find odd relief in not having to try. Writer Rebecca Stein reminds us that “So many of us believe in perfectionism, which ruins everything else, because the perfection is not only the enemy of the good, it’s also the enemy of the realistic, the possible and the fun.”

When we make the decision to put ourselves out there- to take a chance- it is nothing short of walking a tight rope of emotion. One slip, one mistake and off we go into the deep waters of insecurity. I often open a student recital by talking with the crowd of expectant parents, spouses, friends and neighbors and reminding them how brave this endeavor is; not just the performance but the trying.

I have a friend, Daniel Patrylak, who was the original first trumpet of the Eastman Brass Quintet, a superb musician and wonderful man. He once told Paul and I that he had never heard a perfect string performance. He wasn’t being critical of string players, he was simply conversing with us about the reality of things. Instead of feeling discouraged by this, we felt it was actually a gift. How empowering if we can play without the concern of perfection. It’s not going to happen so how about we just let that idea go and be all that we are capable of being?

Nothing is beyond criticism. No matter how much time we put into making something “perfect” there is someone who can find fault with it, so that very effort wastes our valuable time.

Playing music is never about how many notes are correct. It is about the performance as a whole. Vladimir Horowitz was coming off a long break in playing by performing a concert at Carnegie Hall. He began his very first piece by crashing down, dramatically of course, on the complete wrong chord. He went on to three standing ovations. After the concert a music critic asked Mr. Horowitz how he felt about making the blunder. Without pause Horowitz answered “Do you want perfect or do you want Horowitz?”

I say Horowitz every single time.


Melissa Perley