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Caeli Smith

Practicing for Better, Not Best

July 7, 2013 at 10:46 PM

Many musicians are perfectionists. I think artists have to be, to some degree, in order to excel at something so difficult. In many areas of my life, I don’t come close to wanting or obtaining perfection. For example, this is what my bedroom looks like right now:

messy rm
For bonus points, name the celebrity-musician couple on my floor

I don’t care about how pristine my room is, whether my socks match, or how accurate my baking measurements are (resulting in several inedible batches of cookies – my family still doesn’t believe that I wasn’t trying to poison them.) But, as a violinist, I place a huge amount of importance on “perfectionism” in my practicing.

It sounds like a silly thing to say, because very few people have ever come close to perfection in their playing. Others say that “perfect” doesn’t exist, and even if it did, perfect playing is strict and sterile – not the way music should sound.

Aspiring to play your very best is always a good thing, but this goal requires a particular mindset. Many times, I’ve found myself in the following scenario: during a practice session, I’m strategizing how to work on a tricky passage. I begin to play, slowly and carefully, but don’t hear the result I want. I bear down, and try even harder. After a few minutes, I become so frustrated that I can almost feel smoke coming out of my ears.

Of course, this behavior is counter-productive. When I make a mistake, I tense up, both mentally and physically. My body becomes rigid, and my thoughts are demanding and unreasonable: I must play that right, and it must happen now! Sort of like a little kid throwing a temper tantrum. But of course, this insistence for perfection only renders the opposite: because I’ve narrowed my range of motion and thought, my chance of playing correctly diminishes, and I play the passage worse than before.

It’s taken a lot of work, but I’ve trained myself away from that bad habit. Now, when something goes wrong in a practice session, my instinct is to take the violin down from my shoulder, breathe, and relax. I already know what needs to be fixed, but taking a few seconds to prepare myself for the work, instead of plunging into it, makes a big difference.

It’s not helpful to hold yourself to a standard of performance-ready quality when you’re still familiarizing your fingers with the piece. Otherwise, you’ll be ready to throw your violin on the floor after repeating the same two notes for an hour. That being said: in the end, when we’re stepping out on stage, we do want to be prepared to play at a level that’s as close to perfect as possible. That’s why some teachers advise always practicing as if you have a performance the next day. There is a big contrast in the way I practice when I know that soon I’ll have to play in public. Usually, the difference is that my standards go way up, and what was fine yesterday, is SO NOT FINE today.

There seems to be an inherent contradiction here: how are you supposed to stay sane and productive while trying to achieve a performance-ready level in a limited amount of time?

For me, the answer is always practicing with the concert in mind. We spend hours working on the nitty-gritty details – but forget to practice the things that are most important when it comes down to performing. Things like playing “for the hall”, even if the hall is imaginary and you are standing inside a little box of a practice room; and always approaching the piece as music, with a purpose and a message – not just a labyrinth of crazy scales and shifts.

A seemingly simple lesson it’s taken me years to really understand is that progress does not happen over night. Only after days or weeks of patient, repeated application, will your problems improve. I sometimes expect things to come together immediately, but the new information needs time in your brain to gel. Just as if you were weight training: you wouldn’t be able to lift a 50 lb weight just because you easily lifted a 10 lb weight five times.

In a recent lesson, sensing my frustration with a passage, my teacher offered this helpful piece of advice: “Practice for better, not perfect.” Giving myself permission to achieve better, and leave best for another day, gave me peace of mind. Now, off to clean my room...

From Emily Grossman
Posted on July 7, 2013 at 11:31 PM
Ha, I remember practicing Brahms in that room, on a violin that was not yet my own--it was a lot cleaner while I was visiting in January!

Great article, Caeli, and I just wanted you to know I was writing those same sentiments regarding my own expectations and practice habits. (I likened it to building a staircase to the moon using Legos.) The only thing that keeps me going from day to day is remembering that any improvement at all is worthwhile, and all those little Legos do add up after a while. And, it's okay if I never will be where I want to be; just a little bit closer each day is all that matters.

Hope to see you next time I'm down!

From Angelica Cantu
Posted on July 8, 2013 at 3:31 AM
What a nice post! I have been struggling with myself over perfectionism issues lately (all thanks to all state coming up) so the message at the end is really helpful. I well practice for the better. :)
From Michael Pijoan
Posted on July 8, 2013 at 10:00 AM
"For bonus points, name the celebrity-musician couple on my floor"

Okay! I think it's Wu Han and David Finckel.

From marjory lange
Posted on July 8, 2013 at 3:13 PM
Cute dog!
From Tom Holzman
Posted on July 8, 2013 at 3:38 PM
Good post. Thanks for reminding all of us what is important. Good luck!
From Laurie Niles
Posted on July 8, 2013 at 4:13 PM
I think you'd get along with my daughter, right down to the non-matching socks! ;)
From Mendy Smith
Posted on July 9, 2013 at 1:04 AM
"Its all about the music"... A lesson it took me decades to finally learn.
From Kenneth Choo
Posted on July 9, 2013 at 10:32 AM
Hi Caeli,

Nice blog: I also think it's quite well written, which I enjoyed. Thanks...

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