We've all pondered it, struggled with it, reached for it, perceived it in others, and nearly given up and walked away because of the very concept. How can something so, well, perfect be the cause of all these problems? The answer I have found is this: perfection does not exist. We are all told to strive for perfection, but what is the point of striving for something that isn't even there? It's easy to think of the greats as perfect, but no one is. No performance is. No piece is. Nothing is.
Here is why: once one reaches a certain proficiency at the violin (or anything else, for that matter), opinions begin to differ. No two people will be able to agree on what is perfect. All the nuances and personal touches that bring a piece to life will affect different people differently. One may say the interpretation was "perfect", while the other might not like it at all, calling it "bland" or "too schmaltzy". That human part of playing, of putting ourselves into the music, shaping it over and over until something clicks, customizing it, is all very subjective. Interpretation is a truly individual thing.
There is not even such a thing as perfect technique. Different schools of violin technique will argue over the weight of the fingers, the hold on the bow, whether or not one uses a shoulder rest, etc. No matter what, there will always be things that can be improved, if not in general posture and technique, then in specific passages, or changed to better suit an aesthetic or opinion.
I had been turning these ideas over in the recesses of my mind for a while now. I knew for sure that I would never be perfect. Even Hilary Hahn messes up sometimes (and I was truly amazed at that). Real validation of these thoughts about perfection came yesterday in my violin lesson.
I had been traveling for part of the preceding week, and as such had not had my usual three hours per day to practice. I had a huge load of stuff assigned to bring in to my next lesson. I tried to make time for everything - scales, etudes, exercises, repertoire, audition materials, old pieces I was trying to brush up, you name it. I was unusually nervous going into my lesson. I had to do solo Bach from memory, and I knew there were still a couple of shaky spots. I had also done all the main "building" work on the P&A that week, and was a bit worried about getting through it. My Mozart concerto hadn't quite received it's share of my diminished practices. I knew nothing I was bringing in was close to perfect.
I was in for a shock when my teacher stopped me and announced, "it's too perfect!". I had been playing somewhat mechanically, just trying to get all the notes. He made me go back and work through the sections, putting more feeling and phrasing into the music. Internally, I was screaming at the universe. Too perfect? You've got to be kidding me!
This proved to me another point: not only is the stuff of perfection subjective, but the very nature of it is too. It can be seen as a good thing, a bad thing, a neutral thing, or as in my particular train of logic, a nonexistent thing. From now on, instead of trying to be "perfect", I will do my personal best. That may vary from day to day, piece to piece, even venue to venue, but I will always strive to do my best. Not anyone else's best, my best. Beating myself up for not doing better won't get me anywhere. Perfection will never exist, but I will, constantly changing and improving, maturing as a musician and discovering more about myself, my music, and my violin every single day.
Goals - what beautiful things! They are the fuel to every violinist's practice, the inspiration to check that next thing off the list. We all have goals, whether short term or long term, serious or silly. For some of us it's to practice X amount of time per day, for others it's to learn a piece, and for still others, it's to play with friends. It's easy (for me, at least) to get caught up in the exhilaration of setting goals, imagining all the things I could do, all the pieces I could learn, making practice schedules, planning rehearsals, it's all just so exciting!
But trouble comes in carrying out those goals. Maybe there's nothing wrong with the intention or even the work ethic, but stuff happens. You might be traveling and have no time to practice at the airport between flights, or maybe another gig comes up and you have to drop all your previous goals and spend your hours on the new material. That's all fine.
The real problem is when you convince yourself to lower those goals. You can't control what the rest of the world's doing, but you can control what you do. Don't make excuses. Push yourself; test your limits. Don't stop the practice timer early just because you're tired, or have a show you want to watch. Stick. With. It. See your goals through. I for one am guilty of setting aside goals because they didn't speak to me once I started them. One of the things that helps me follow through on my goals is to share them with someone else. That way, I can't wriggle out of what I said I'd do. It sets up an expectation. The other person expects me to do what I set out to do, and I in turn expect myself to not disappoint them. In an effort to get rid of this "running away from goals" habit, I came up with this plan.
There are three categories: Scales/Etudes/Technique, New/Current Repertoire, and Old Repertoire. The time frame is adjustable, but one to two weeks is a good length. Set a goal, an intention, for that time frame with things from each category.
Next, find a musical friend who is willing to do the same. Give each other your personal musical goals and agree to meet after that set amount of time. When you get together, play what you worked on for each other. You could think of it as a mini performance, if you wanted to. You don't have to play through everything, but you could have the other person help spot check the pieces. Give a little feedback for each thing - maybe one or two things they did well and one or two things that could still use a little work. Don't get too detailed, go for the big picture, and don't be too critical.
That's my plan for sharing practice - I hope it's helpful. Below is one of my sets of goals as an example.
8/20 - 8/28
Flesch scales and arpeggios
Slow long bow scales every day for control
Daily 3 minute bows
Kreutzer etudes nos. 18 & 1
Youth Symphony audition scales
Bach Sonatas and Partitas
Sonata no. 2 in A minor, 3rd & 4th mvts. memorized
Partita no. 2 in D minor, 4th mvt. memorized
Kreisler Preludium and Allegro, basic "building" and getting the notes under my fingers
Youth Symphony audition Excerpt
Don Juan excerpt
Maybe Moto Perpetuo by Paganini, maybe not
Mozart Violin Concerto no. 4 in D major
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Discover the best of Violinist.com in these collections of editor Laurie Niles' exclusive interviews.
Violinist.com Interviews Volume 1, with introduction by Hilary Hahn
Violinist.com Interviews Volume 2, with introduction by Rachel Barton Pine