The Well Aging Fiddler: Perfection? Forget about it.

November 7, 2017, 9:12 AM · 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.


November 7, 2017 at 07:18 PM · I would be into that just for the Wine, cider, cheese, bread, and other treats......Great article, thanks.

November 7, 2017 at 07:38 PM · Thank you for you story! I am PETRIFIED of playing in front of ANYONE! That has kept me back so much. I had a terrible experience at the age of 12 after my 3rd violin lesson when I was invited to play for my 6th grade class. I played twinkle twinkle and got rousing applause, but when I excitedly went to my lesson after school, my teacher screamed at me and yelled “how dare you play until I tell you that you are ready? You represent ME! You were hardly ready and don’t ever do that again without my permission!” I never did. I played in a few youth orchestras, practiced diligently. When I arrived at college and was going to major in music.....I stood outside the door of the audition room......I listened to all the others and the ones waiting with me discussed what they did all summer at Julliard or the Aspen music festival. I realized then that I didnt belong there! I got up, picked up my violin and walked over to the college of education and changed my major. I did play in a few orchestras until motherhood and teaching took me away from the violin for 40 years. I am back now, but only play for myself.....still just as petrified. I just freeze up! Now I am 70 and very busy traveling as much as I can squeeze in here and there, so practice is not consistent. I wll always love the violin as I did since age 5 when my Mom took me to the smphony. I came home wanting to learn how to make that beautiful sound. I was told by music teachers my Mom consulted that I had to learn piano first....the “mother of all instruments” So, I did, all along begging to learn to play violin. I was in a large family and it wasnt in the budget to take both ......finally, they relented at age 12! I was in Heaven.......until that first “recital”!!!!!!

November 7, 2017 at 08:45 PM · Performing publically is a fantastic way to improve your playing...especially when it includes playing along with other musicians. I played the violin for only 3 years when I was invited to play with the worship team at church.

I was terrified at the thought, but.....I said yes....and for the next...maybe 3 years....I stood in front of our congregation most Sundays....with my knees knocking together...playing that violin best I could.

It's been about 15/16 years now....and in all that time I played with a fiddle group for awhile and then discovered that a small string orchestra had started up in my town and practices were only about 2 minutes down the road from my I joined up and have been playing with them for about 5 years now...and love it.

The improvement in my playing over the years is directly related to playing regularly with other's challenging and it stretches you, giving you something to work towards and I highly recommend sucking in your pride and self respect....and going for it ! :-D

November 7, 2017 at 09:00 PM · Michael,

Wisdom. Few of us are cut out to be like Glen Gould who only plays in his, or the recording, studio.

I like the idea of a small circle of musicians playing for each other. That being said, I really like playing the accompaniment to my student's playing melody. I've even procured Christmas Carols arranged for two violins but so far, my students aren't willing to go to the local hospitals or senior residences to play them with me.

Occasionally, I get to play a solo in church (usually the descant) and that isn't all that often.

Regardless of the venue, you are correct, we always make some mistakes. Humans always do.

November 7, 2017 at 09:31 PM · You are onto something! Yes!

I just had two houseguests, one of which grew up in a family of musicians and was a ballerina herself, the other is a drummer, and I refused to play in front of them. Instead, I opted to "practice" in my practice room with the door closed. It felt like a failure of courage to do that, especially in front of close friends who understand what it is like to play music and be surrounded by the constant "in progress" nature of it.

I record myself and watch/listen to the recordings and I am NEVER satisfied with what I hear and insist I play terribly. (My teacher, by the way, thinks I'm crazy and says that I'm more than an intermediate player and "getting really good" - so I must be bonkers.)

It's not about the mistakes for me, it's about the overall sound that I feel I am not making that I want to make - which I suppose is a perfection issue in and of itself? I'm scared to play duets with a friend who plays the flute, because I think I'm terrible - it's quite sad and embarrassing.

I like the idea of playing with my teacher's fellow students and having wine, cheese and other treats around to take the edge off the performance-pressure. Maybe I'll propose that idea to my flutist friend and see what we can hack our way through.

Thanks for writing this!

November 8, 2017 at 02:10 AM · I had one of the worst ever practice days in the four years I’ve been a student, I even broke my g string... I yelled, cried and screamed, yet I know tomorrow will be better (I hope). I am also afraid to perform, but, if there were other adults and we could do a casual, in studio performance, This would certainly be a consideration.

November 8, 2017 at 05:46 PM · I remember my first recital with my first teacher. It was a total disaster. I was hyperventilating, sweating a lot, my fingers didn't know where to go and I lost my place reading the music right in front of me. At that point, I froze. Somehow I managed to get through it, but the music was unrecognizable and I left the stage very shaken and dejected

I fell into some financial hardship and stopped playing for some 11 years

I found a new teacher and started from scratch. My first recital with her, my heart was pounding but I surprised myself and got through several short pieces without too much trouble. I did get lost and hit a few wrong notes, but all in all it was very encouraging when I just went for it

I've never had a perfect recital, but now it is a lot more fun and I find it a welcomed challenge every time

November 8, 2017 at 06:06 PM · These comments are amazing to read and some are heartbreaking. From a verbally abusive teacher chastising a 12 year old for playing, “Twinkle Twinkle” to someone who doesn’t like how they sound to anger and a broken G string. All I can say is you are not alone. I’ve been there and just about everyone else has as well.

The best advice I can give is advice I was once told, “You think too much, Michael.” They were right. I had a period in my life where things weren’t working out well, and I hit a stalemate where I couldn’t move forward with anything. It was numbing, blinding, and I found myself on a downward spiral to nowhere. So how did I get out of all of that?

Well, this is going to sound far too simplistic, but it works. I just woke up one morning and decided all of this was nuts. Everybody was telling me what to do except for one person – me. So I concluded I had absolutely nothing to lose. I got up and started to move things around, I started to move things forward, I started to allow myself mistakes, to blow off critics, and to find my own happiness.

That’s when things started to go up. Yes, they went both up and down as well, but they were moving. Of course, this is hindsight, but I suggest this:

Go back in time and tell that teacher to eat his violin. We play these things to enjoy the music, not to represent someone else’s reputation. What a jerk! I had a brief period of playing violin when I was nine. We had a concert and the teacher put me in the back row and told me to move my arm like the others and not to let the bow touch the strings. I blew him off and played as I wished.

Enjoy your sound. Yes, it’s like hearing your own voice on a recoding. None of us like it, but it’s what we have, so go for it. It’s a lot more fun that way. Did you see that blog post where I played for the first time and someone called the cops? Believe me, you can’t be that bad.

You’re right. Tomorrow is a new day. G-strings can be fixed and there isn’t anything wrong with letting off a little steam and crying.

Get with some others and play. Do an adult recital. Play in the living room. You know what? Go play at an open mic! Why not? The more you let it go, the more you take charge of the whole thing, the more you don’t worry about all that other nonsense, the better you’ll feel.

November 8, 2017 at 06:25 PM · Thank you for sharing this. I am 67 yrs. old and I have been taking lessons for about 2-1/2 yrs. I have never played publicly. I get so nervous playing for my teacher that my palms get sweaty. My wife, who has played the flute since 6th grade, plays for our worship team at church. She has been encouraging me to join them, but I have never felt good enough. She says that I am. I play at home accompanying recorded hymns, and she and I have played together, but I have felt too nervous to try to play in public. She read your article and has become more persistent in her encouragement. She told me that she doesn't want me to feel pressured by her, but she knows that I can do it. She has more confidence in me than I have in myself. After reading this article and the responses, I may give it a try soon.

November 9, 2017 at 04:33 PM · I think you can do it too. I used to audition actors for plays, and over time I saw there are two ways to approach things like auditions, job interviews, performances, and so on. (This is going to become a future blog post, but I'll give it a little preview here, just between you and me).

1. The first way is to approach the whole thing with the attitude of "If this doesn't work out I'm gong to die!" While that may get your adrenaline going, and your energy might be sky high, more than often it doesn't work out, because you are putting far too much pressure on yourself. Also, nobody wants to see you dead.

2. The second way is to say this: "Here I am. This is what I can do. It will either work out or it won't, but in any case, lets see what happens." That approach is a lot more down to earth. Play it as well as you can at that moment. Enjoy what you're doing, and let the cards fall where they may.

Seriously, the second way is always the best. Remember, everyone is on your side.

November 9, 2017 at 09:24 PM · Ah, perfection. I remember Tomita and his "Switched on Bach" album many decades ago. Briefly interesting and eminently boring. To be sure the pitches were perfect and every note was played in exact time and there were no mistakes at all. It was dull and lifeless - just like the computer that it was produced on.

November 11, 2017 at 06:53 PM · It is not the idea of perfection that keeps me from performing, I simply don't see the point of it. As a kid I played the flute, I played at school concerts and it was okay. Now I learn the violin and the idea of performing is far away. I play for myself, I love the learning process and that is why I do it.Maybe it is because I have to "perform" so much in my job, giving lectures and talk, that I just don't have a need to make music in front of other people, except in front of my close friends and family in my living room.

November 12, 2017 at 01:18 PM · I agree with you that performance for the sake of performance isn't really all that necessary to enjoying the instrument. While performance is usually defined as playing in front of a designated audience, I'm talking about performance in the broader context of playing a violin in front of anybody in a formal performance, or simply at home for friends and family. Frankly, I think playing with family members or in an informal setting with some friends at home or in the back yard is ideal. In the end it's all about community. Kicking back and having fun playing music is healthy and far better than staring at a television set or texting on a cell phone. What I've been finding is there are some people - a lot of people - who hold back from all playing for fear of making mistakes and sounding bad. To me, that needs to be overcome so they can really enjoy playing the instrument and realize they are being celebrated for their music.

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