During an intermission at our recent Halloween recital I was talking to one of my fellow violin students. He wasn’t playing in the recital, and I was surprised he decided to simply listen.
"I’m not ready. Once I’m ready, I’ll consider it," he said to me. I was surprised. I’d heard him play, and frankly, I thought he was quite good, but he didn’t see it that way. That's too bad because I believe everyone who plays a violin, or any other musical instrument, should take the important step of playing music in front of others. Whether it is a recital, a Bluegrass or old time jam, an open mic show, or some other venue, preparing a piece or two, having a deadline and a time for playing, and then getting up in front of others is an important part in developing skills and confidence.
Last spring when I started playing violin, after my third lesson, I had an opportunity to play in a student concert. I jumped in and played "Boil ‘em Cabbage Down" right along with my teacher, Mirabai Peart. It went well. People were both delighted and amused that a 68 year-old man got up and played in a concert where the vast majority of musicians were elementary school children. There were also couple of middle and high school students, and parents who accompanied their children. Beyond that, I was a bit of a novelty.
The following Monday, when I went to my fourth lesson, I asked my teacher whether she had other adult students. "Actually, about half of my students are adults, " she said. "They are just too busy, or simply don’t want to play in these recitals."
I was surprised, but understand their hesitation. As you know, this is a difficult musical instrument. It’s very unforgiving. Everything – and I mean everything – done with a violin and a bow must be patiently and skillfully learned. It takes a long time to begin to get a good sound, and there is little guarantee that sound will be there the next day.
When I practice on my violin I’m often reminded of the movie, "Groundhog Day", with Bill Murray. The story of a man stuck in the time loop of a single day, and his struggles to simply get onto the next one. With the violin, I may have a good day, but the next day is no guarantee I will move forward in my technique. It’s slow, deliberate, and requires patience and focus. Going to that next step of getting up in front of others, with no real guarantee it will sound any good, is a bit over the top. In a lot of ways, the practice sessions alone discourage any urge to stand in front of an audience.
Practice is often repetitious and a lot of work. It's a lot of scales (how thrilling), arpeggios (even more thrilling), single string exercises, cross string exercises, pitch and tone exercises, learning how to read those little dots and lines on the paper, and making mistake after mistake after mistake. How on earth could someone be persuaded to do something like this in front of an audience? Why put yourself through that stress? Who needs it?
Plus, to discourage people from performing, there is that ever-elusive, out of reach golden ring of perfection. A lot of people think, "Once the tune is exactly what I want it to be, once it’s solid and secure, then I’ll consider playing in a recital." That’s too bad because the old saying, "Practice makes perfect" is a dead end goal. Of course you want to play well. You want to have great timing, intonation, and so forth. That makes sense, but don’t go for perfection. Go for something better. Go for the moment.
Let me explain what I mean. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never done anything even close to perfection. When I sang and played guitar and mandolin in shows, jams, solo, in groups, and so forth, I never once hit perfection. Never. When I was an actor and director I never had a perfect performance or play. Every story I’ve written, or article I’ve submitted could have been better. However, I just went for it. If I’d gone for perfection I’d never have done anything.
Perfection is an airbrushed, auto-tunes, color adjusted, mirage. Indeed, it is actually something to avoid because of one very important factor.
Perfection is boring – It’s really, really boring. It ain’t got no life. It’s not present. It’s not in the moment. Imagine you are in your practice room and the prefect performance happens for you. You get through a piece of music without any mistakes, without any rhythm problems, your bowing is amazing, your body and the violin are married in a joyful moment, the heavens open and the angels sing, you play that song wonderfully, and then it ends.
Well, so much for that, eh? If it happens, I’m glad it happened. Of course, the catch is you’ll have to do it again, and there isn’t any guarantee it will work out as well.
Here is something we’ve all experienced. You had a great practice session. You’ve got it down. You’re confident. Then you go into your lesson, play in front of your teacher, and for some reason it just doesn’t work out as well. So what happened? What happened is the fact that someone else was in the room, and that changes everything. It could be one person, or fifty, but the second someone else is present, all bets are off, and perfection is out the window because you are now in a moment of artistic communication.
Here's an example: I used to work with playwrights. I directed their new plays. One playwright refused to let his plays be staged or even read. I asked him why. "It’s because in my head it’s perfect. In my head it’s cast exactly how I want, the sets are perfect, the lines are delivered exactly as they should be delivered, the audience loves it, and the plays are always a success. Why should I risk letting actors ruin my writing?"
Yes, he really said that. That guy must be one lonely fellow.
Believe me, perfection is not your goal. As Tony Soprano often said, "Forget about it." What you are going for is communication. You are diving into the instrument and the music to draw others in with you. You are working to fill that space with sound that says something, that pulls the listener into the moment.
Did you see The Beatles on Ed Sullivan in 1964? Well, probably not, but watch them on YouTube singing, "I Want To Hold Your Hand" in their first live American performance. Check it out on YouTube.
Notice anything odd? Can you hear John Lennon? It's hard, right? It doesn’t sound good because his microphone wasn’t working. All the voices are coming from Paul McCartney’s microphone. As a bit of perfection it was something of a disaster. One of them even messed up some words in the song. And yet it was a triumphant moment. Why? Look at those guys. They are having a great time. They’re looking up at the kids in the audience, they’re smiling, almost laughing, and the audience is having the time of their lives.
The Beatles, their audience, and 90 million people who were watching it, were in the moment.
That’s what you’re going for when you play, and the only way you are going to get there is to experience playing in front others as often as you can. You’ve got to get over that hump of avoiding an audience.
To get other adults to play, my teacher, Mirabai Peart, and I came up with a plan. We’d have a recital just for adult students. Only the players would be present. It would be in the studio and not in an auditorium. We’d just play one song for each other. We’d keep it light and low stress. Wine, cider, cheese, bread, and other treats would be available.
The recital was proposed, and five students took the bait. We met in the studio on a Friday night. While Mirabai knew everyone of us, we were strangers to each other, but that didn’t last long. We sat in a small semi-circle while each of us got up in front of the others, and played his or her song. Frankly, we had a great time. One woman had played violin for two years, but never in front of anyone until that night. After we played we sat around and talked, laughed, empathized, and the atmosphere was friendly and light.
In other words, we had fun.
A month later, the Sunday before Halloween, another student concert took place. However, this time there were five adult violinists playing along with the kids, rather than just me. How did it go? It was great! We had an enthusiastic audience, lots of variety, a sense of fun, and some good treats at intermission! Were there mistakes? Of course! So what? I played a piece I probably should have held back on because I wasn’t really ready to play it in public, but I got through it as well as I could. Live and learn, right? The young woman who played after me nailed her piece. She played an Irish reel and knocked it out of the park.
Do as well as you can, but don’t wait for perfection. It’s not all it’s chalked up to be.
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