I read this with recognition. I struggle with a naturally competitive nature, given the fact that I am not amazing at any of my hobbies. I love it that this piece gives me permission to just enjoy, and not strive. :-)
Excellent essay and really good reminder. I liked this point:
Reminds me of the reason I ultimately do this (not just to be good at it).
I believe it’s called “Failing Forward.” If you can’t deal with failure on the way to getting better, then do something passive and enjoy someone else’s work (aka doing nothing, being a bystander, living vicariously, slug life, etc.) It seems to work for millions of sports fans.
As a professional psychologist (and an amateur violinist), I have always appreciated what a colleague of mine told me decades ago. His specialty was psychoanalytical psychotherapy. He talked about what he called the "perfection fantasy."
One of the hardest things about getting better at music is: the better you get, the higher your expectations tend to become. I found it easy to embrace mediocrity for the first 10-12 years when I thought my ceiling was intermediate level. It's become much harder after breaking through and going well above what I thought would be my ceiling, and still improving rapidly. In orchestras, where I was once just happy to be there, I now remember every single missed note in a concert for weeks afterward...
For me, being good at something and enjoying it are not mutually exclusive... they go together. When I first started playing violin, I didn't really enjoy it because I sounded bad. I only stuck with it because I knew that if I worked hard and improved I'd get better and probably enjoy it more. I have indeed enjoyed it more and more as I got better, got to play more complex pieces, play with better musicians, etc. I don't think that striving for excellence has to be something bad, something that destroys our enjoyment. Of course it can cross the line into perfectionism and over-competitive-ness, which becomes un-enjoyable for me, but for me it is equally un-enjoyable to be in an environment where mediocrity is accepted and even celebrated, where it feels like people have stopped trying to improve, or don't imagine or hope for a higher level for themselves. I don't think there's anything wrong with that, but its not my scene. I know I will never get to a professional level of playing on violin but I do carry the knowledge with me that I am playing masterpieces of the highest order and I have a responsibility to play them to the very best of my ability. I enjoy this sense of responsibility and striving.
Nice essay. Thanks for posting. I am now 62. Music has been my major hobby over time. Piano off and on (mostly off) since age 8; trumpet since age 12 (played jazz band, church, regional orchestra; guitar as a midlife crisis last 20 years (classical, jazz, fingerstyle) so I have been able to do lot with it. Recently took up the viola as a totally new challenge intellectually, hand-eye, etc. I am a physician and am convinced that a challenge such as this could be preventive for later dementia. I never anticipate taking the viola public, but who knows? I have an excellent young teacher who endures my efforts and understands my goals. Really I am only competing with myself day-to-day, week-to-week.
Ironically, one of thr healhiest groups I ever ws part of-in terms of accepting the variability of performance and improvement through practice- were triathletes. At the finish line, we all congratulated each other for just doing better than we-as individuals - had done before. Everyone had the same goal- a PR or personal record. Perhaps that came from a three discipline event in which no-one was perfect in all aspects of all three sports.
Here's an appropriate and famous quote from a violinist who in his day was the symbol of perfection - Jascha Heifetz:
Thanks Sander, et al. I call it "toxic perfectionism", and it afflicts the main-stream classical music culture more than the other music genres. Perfectionism leads to Procrastination leads to Paralysis.
Sander, I really appreciate your contributions to this discussion. You wrote, "...to equate perfection with simply being adequate puts us human beings in an impossible bind."
It should go without saying that the achievement of "perfection" in anything is a false goal. Elizabeth's question isn't concerned with the attainment of perfection or even improvement, just the striving after it; why not be content with one's level of achievement and simply enjoy the ride?
(Forewarning, I did not read the article!)
I think it's important to strive at violinistic perfection, however illusory, because any less aspirations all-too-often produce less than mediocre results. I have a personality that often asks for self-perfection, though it's not driven by ambition, but more by core values. "It must sound good". I am way more lenient with others than with myself. I have however learned to appreciate every step, rather than chastising myself over "not good enough yet". Another voice within now says "but it's better, and will definitely improve with more conscientious work and patience."
Remember the title of Yehudi Menuhin's autobiography? It is, "Unfinished Journey."
Adalberto - does your endless musical journey involve aspects of music outside violinistic performance? I ask in all seriousness because one of the things that surprises me most about this site is how many people seem to regard their playing as an end in itself, not a means to an end which is the participation in and enjoyment of one of the great achievements of western civilization.
In this regard, I believe that Tchaikovsky had the most eloquent quote (that I've ever seen) on this issue:
I'll embrace an old Army slogan, "Be all you can be"
There is enjoyment in learning to be fluent in a language, and similarly in music. But if one is not learning to be fluent and accepts to stay where one is, where is the joy in that? It is frustrating.
Tammuz - you make an excellent analogy but exactly (IMO) the wrong conclusion. Most people learn languages, not for their own enjoyment but in order to be able to communicate with others. Fluency certainly helps, but what is the point of fluency if you're talking to yourself? Nobody spends hours practising their French into a mirror.
I just want to add that the quality I hate most and fire most from my staff, is perfectionism.
This article describes my life. I think it was my long break from the violin and restart on the viola as an adult that enabled me to be a happy amateur.