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Perfection is a Lie

Lily Dunlap

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Published: August 30, 2015 at 5:59 AM [UTC]


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.

From Tom Holzman
Posted on August 30, 2015 at 6:12 PM
Perfection is, indeed, a lie. With music, it is an enormously difficult concept to define since music involves interpretation. Most people think of "perfection" in music the way your teacher seemed to suggest: getting all the notes perfectly. But as your teacher got you to realize, that sort of "perfection" can be quite sterile, and no one would really want to listen much to it. Ultimately, the concept really seems out of place in music performance.
From Dimitri Musafia
Posted on August 31, 2015 at 10:37 AM
Perfection is a process, not a result. An unending one, I might add. So why bother?

My dad once had a conversation with the philosopher Karl Popper, in which they were discussing how solving one problem (P1) only created a new one (P2), and so on. "So why do you continue?" my dad asked. The answer: "Because problem solving is interesting."

Posted on August 31, 2015 at 12:59 PM
I have never made a mistake.
I thought I did once, but I was wrong.
From Trevor Jennings
Posted on August 31, 2015 at 6:01 PM
Many years ago, in my early days as a student in the patents profession, I attended, along with other students, a tutorial by a partner in a prestigious firm of attorneys. He said, looking sternly at us one by one, "In this firm we never ever make mistakes!", and then proceeded to discuss (i.e. demolish) the work we had prepared. In the pub afterwards we talked about that remark and concluded that what he really meant (but probably wouldn't admit) was that mistakes made within the firm never got out to a client, or to anyone else outside the firm.
Posted on September 1, 2015 at 4:47 PM
"We will chase perfection. While perfection cannot be attained, we will catch excellence." - Vince Lombardi (legendary football coach)

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