Embracing Mediocrity

October 9, 2018, 1:14 PM · 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. :-)

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/29/opinion/sunday/in-praise-of-mediocrity.html

Replies (75)

October 9, 2018, 4:22 PM · Excellent essay and really good reminder. I liked this point:

"In a way that we rarely appreciate, the demands of excellence are at war with what we call freedom. For to permit yourself to do only that which you are good at is to be trapped in a cage whose bars are not steel but self-judgment."

Going to my own little afternoon of practicing. If something is worth doing, it is worth doing even badly.

October 9, 2018, 4:33 PM · Reminds me of the reason I ultimately do this (not just to be good at it).
Edited: October 12, 2018, 5:23 PM · 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.
October 12, 2018, 6:45 PM · 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."

The perfection fantasy is that we sometimes equate perfection with adequacy. In other words, the only thing that is "good enough" is achieving perfection. While perfection is a wonderful goal to strive for, to equate perfection with simply being adequate puts us human beings in an impossible bind.

According to the perfection fantasy, we have only 2 choices: It's either to be perfect or to be no good and totally inadequate. And since we human beings are hardly ever "perfect" in anything, we are always losers, failures, because we made just one or two even inconsequential mistakes. This is bound to lead to feelings of failure and discouragement, and can destroy anyone's motivation.

So, yes, strive for perfection. But don't judge yourself by perfection.

Of course, I myself have never made a mistake. I thought I did once, but I was wrong.
:)

Cheers,
Sandy

October 12, 2018, 7:36 PM · 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...

But freedom comes from knowing that no one else is playing perfectly either.

October 13, 2018, 7:31 AM · 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.
I think there's an equally disturbing trend in our culture to equate enjoyment with relaxation, and dis-associate enjoyment from hard work. I'm curious to see if others feel the same way, or if I'm alone in this way of thinking...
October 13, 2018, 8:04 AM · 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.
Sylvie, I think, is spot on in her observation above that hard work is underappreciated. Grandparents used to talk of a feeling of "good tired" when they had accomplished a lot around the house or on the farm. I have had my share of it and look forward to more.

Jon

Edited: October 13, 2018, 8:37 AM · 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.
As an aging amateur with multiple roles, responsibilities, and jobs, I take satisfaction in those things that are improving. very different from when I was in the college of music as a young adult.
October 13, 2018, 11:03 AM · Here's an appropriate and famous quote from a violinist who in his day was the symbol of perfection - Jascha Heifetz:
"There is no 'top.' There are always further heights to reach."

And, yes, often we can take pride in the commitment to succeed and in the attempt and in the small victories, even if we fail to achieve ultimate "victory" or perfection. There's nothing like recognizing one's imperfect humanness to help one accept and appreciate oneself....and others.

October 13, 2018, 11:27 AM · 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.
My antidote is "sometimes good enough is good enough", and, the audience is not there to judge you, they want to have an enjoyable evening.
Edited: October 13, 2018, 11:30 AM · 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."

I've got a lot of hobbies, but nowhere is this bind more acute than classical violin. I've made a lot of my own furniture and I'm proud of it even though it's very obviously not perfect. Folks come over and I say, "Look at the stacking end-tables I made" even though they're nothing special. No WAY would I say, "I'm a violinist, sit down and hear my Fiocco Allegro!" What I CAN do is play But Beautiful or Smoke Gets In Your Eyes on the piano, because nobody expects technical brilliance from an old ballad.

You also joked, "Of course, I myself have never made a mistake. I thought I did once, but I was wrong."

My version of that: I used to be conceited, but now I'm perfect.

Edited: October 14, 2018, 1:47 AM · 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?

I don't play the violin in order to get better at playing the violin. I long ago reached a point where I don't expect to get better, and am pleasantly surprised when occasionally I do detect some improvement. My satisfaction is achieved when, as happened yesterday, I get together with a bunch of old friends and, prior to a substantial lunch and a couple of bottles of wine, discover we can read through a Beethoven quartet last played maybe 15 years ago with a modicum of success. It's a great feeling. OK, it wasn't quite so good after lunch.

The NYT article hints that "striving" may be a characteristic of culture in the US more than some other countries. Like all cultural traits, it has a plus side and a minus side.

October 15, 2018, 11:30 AM · (Forewarning, I did not read the article!)

I think this "striving" is also reflected in the fact that every single person I speak with who learns that violin is a hobby of mine asks if I am going to find a way to make money from it. I had another "hobby" become a second job and it's brutal - the pay stinks, the hours are horrific and I'm the only employee...

October 15, 2018, 12:07 PM · 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."

So , yes , don't hurt yourselves over mistakes, but working hard and intelligently at it will finally yield better results, which will make it a more enjoyable "hobby" for you to learn.

For me it is a way of life, and an endless musical Journey.

October 15, 2018, 12:38 PM · Remember the title of Yehudi Menuhin's autobiography? It is, "Unfinished Journey."
October 15, 2018, 12:41 PM · 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.
Edited: October 15, 2018, 3:29 PM · In this regard, I believe that Tchaikovsky had the most eloquent quote (that I've ever seen) on this issue:

"Music is not illusion. It is, rather, revelation. Its triumphant power is that it reveals to us beauties we find nowhere else. And the apprehension of them is not transitory, but a perpetual reconcilement of life."

Bravo, Tchaikovsky

October 15, 2018, 8:37 PM · I'll embrace an old Army slogan, "Be all you can be"

If you give up you'll never know what that is exactly. If you persist, you'll continually be moving toward that goal.

I think goals are important. I want to be a better mediocrity than I was yesterday until hopefully it's no longer mediocrity. Since my pursuit is more about the ride than the destination , I'll be ok enjoying the ride while striving for the goal, since the goal is ever moving, much like time.

If time were a goal what would it be? For creatures that time doesn't matter, perfection can take forever. Old musicians don't really die , they just move to another concert hall.

Music doesn't exist without a conduit. If you were chosen to be a conduit, don't think that will ever end.If you try to run it's going to find you.If you wait too long, you'll come running back looking for it.

October 15, 2018, 8:59 PM · 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.

I think here it is not really about excellence or perfection as much as it is that the lack of fluency (ie technical faults:intonation, rhythm, bad bowing, etc etc etc) is just so obvious that the faults, being so jolting, immediately foreground the music. To some extent, playing well is also a matter of getting out of the music's way. Bad playing is in the way. That's the hard truth. Im very much in the way.

Edited: October 16, 2018, 3:46 AM · 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.

And Timothy - I really don't care about "being all I can be" or "moving towards a goal". Without wishing to widen the Atlantic, these are very much US American ideals that are far less important where I come from. My life isn't all about me and my goals. If it were I'd have despaired as soon as I realized that many of my capabilities are starting to ebb away with age, so my goals would all have to be constantly revised downwards.

October 16, 2018, 9:23 AM · I just want to add that the quality I hate most and fire most from my staff, is perfectionism.
It's incredibly egotistic, with stink of sanctity.
Perfectionists rarely deliver within the deadline. Often times "never", if they are not happy with their work.
In real world, things need to happen and advance. Obsessive perfectionism is unidimensional and stagnating.
October 16, 2018, 5:13 PM · 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.

There is something powerful in modest, realistic expectations. I keep mine that way and then I pleasantly surprise myself by ocasionally exceeding them. The other way, of endlessly chasing high expectations, of "shooting for the moon" and hoping that even if you don't get there you'll land "among the stars," besides being astronomically incorrect (since the stars are much futher away than the moon) is a recipe for anxiety and disappointment, at least in my experience.

October 17, 2018, 4:12 PM · A couple of quotes come to mind:

"Never let the fear of striking out keep you from playing the game." Babe Ruth

"Musical training is a more potent instrument than any other, because rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul." Plato

October 17, 2018, 9:28 PM · Mr. Jones,

I am actually in the minority-most musicians desire a practical application of their skills. Which is quite fine if you are able to. After all, we learn our beautiful instrument to perform at some point, and/or to help others via teaching. Love making music, listen to music most of the time, but still, my purpose is "to master the violin"-an "impossible" proposition which nevertheless enriches my life quite deeply.

This is not a U.S.vs the world thing, IMHO, but more a personality issue. I do consider myself a perfectionist, though not entirely as Mr. Carlos has experienced them in his life. And surely one has to balance the need to do things perfectly with actually doing something. But yes, I can accept warts, but will keep working until there is none-keep learning "useless" repertoire to keep growing further, whether I'll use it in the future or not (usually, a balance of pieces.)

I do agree playing/performing is super important, but that one doesn't need to be too cynical about "being all we can be", as I know we can all surprise ourselves with a deeply committed labor of love.

No offense intended, and very much hope none is taken-it's OK to "embrace mediocrity", but also not for me, if that means that I will stop progressing into being the best artist/violinist I could be.

The Journey is great!

Best Wishes to all, perfectionists, mediocre-happy, and all in between. It's OK for you to be yourselves.

(I guess my greatest fear regarding this matter is that by avoiding being a reasonable "perfectionist", one could end up accepting the technical/repertoire status-quo all too easily, while still being able to do and achieve much more. For me, if I can be even better, why not? It will hopefully end up with a nicer musical result in the end, and in my case, make my life better/richer.)

October 17, 2018, 9:31 PM · Following up on Steve Jones's earlier comment, my plan is to try to continue to improve until I reach 60.
October 18, 2018, 2:55 AM · I should start a new thread "What to play when you realise you're past it?". Much to my amazement and delight Usain Bolt scored two goals in his debut professional soccer game so I guess you should never write anyone off, including yourself
October 18, 2018, 6:57 PM · Paul, what are you going to do when you reach 60? Stop improving? I'm 68, and although I try to not have illusions about my playing, I hope to be able to continue improving (at least a little bit) for as long as I can. (It's hard, though - I have so many other activities at which I'm trying to improve too.)

I think that however good we get, there's always something that can be improved. Once at a workshop I expounded a bit of musical philosophy: "We all suck, we just suck at different levels." The instructor looked at me and said, "You're one of those glass-half-empty people, aren't you?" That prompted me to be a bit less judgemental.

October 19, 2018, 2:32 AM · Charlie - you ask "what are you going to do when you reach 60?" After retiring at 58 I knew what I was going to do. Having long been interested in the neglected chamber music repertoire but lacking partners available 24/7, I decided I'd have to play all the parts myself and multitrack the results. Violin and viola were no problem but the cello I'd have to play on the viola an octave higher (and subsequently drop the pitch digitally) so needed to learn to play in bass and tenor clef as well as the ins and outs of Audacity. Not many people know that in the 100 years after Beethoven more than 700 composers published string quartets. I got pretty well acquainted with 100 or so that I'd previously never heard of.
Edited: October 19, 2018, 6:57 AM · Charlie: Yes. I'm just going to play my violin and enjoy myself. And I'll probably do like Steve except that I also enjoy playing along with recordings of string quartets. And I think I could audition into the local symphony now (NRV, not Roanoke), and they have two 2-hour rehearsals per week which would basically replace half my practice time. That would be the end of improvement anyway.
Edited: October 19, 2018, 1:05 PM · "And Timothy - I really don't care about "being all I can be" or "moving towards a goal". Without wishing to widen the Atlantic, these are very much US American ideals that are far less important where I come from. My life isn't all about me and my goals. If it were I'd have despaired as soon as I realized that many of my capabilities are starting to ebb away with age, so my goals would all have to be constantly revised downwards."

Steve I clearly see wisdom in your points made. I don't think it's harmful to revise goals as we go along. Imagine the flip side of this. If we had no aspirations/goals? Might as well give up and die. I believe we all have unspoken motives which can be translated as goals. Why get up in the morning? Maybe different people need to make those more concrete and others not so much. Being retired would require more motivation at times. That's a guess for me. I'm not retired.At that point it's only up to you.
My retired brother-in-law tells me he forgets what day it is. All the days run together. It's a different mindset.

Yes I am from the US. I never looked at this like a mentality bred here. How can one stereotype 12 million people?

October 19, 2018, 1:58 PM · Timothy - I think all national cultures have distinguishing characteristics although of course not to the point that they're stereotypical of the entire population. I don't consider it good or bad (many in the UK would consider it good) that US culture is probably more aspirational than ours. A legacy of frontier spirit? That might possibly explain why almost no musician of my acquaintance (most of them on the amateur/professional cusp) actually practises in the sense of "does practice"! Instead, we practise in the field, playing too many concerts on too few rehearsals until we decide we'd prefer to have Saturday nights to ourselves.

Unlike some, retirement came very easily to me. I'm fortunate to live in a part of the country that is rich in terms of landscape and history. London is a short train journey away. I never have to worry about motivating myself, although I sometimes have to think about what day it is.

Edited: October 21, 2018, 8:28 PM · Hi Steve,

I need to make a BIG correction here. I said 12 million. The US census is something like 320 million. I was only off by about 308 million :)

I'm not well traveled. I've been over to mostly Ireland.Never to London. I hear it's overrun with *gasp* Londoners! Lots of tourists too as would be expected. I do read a lot of history in attempts to deprogram myself from the history I was taught in school, so I would agree with the ambition and drive of early Americans. Of course that spirit came from those who decided to leave places over there for a better life here. Running from religious persecution or to get better jobs. My area was heavily settled by Quakers, Mennonites and Amish. That legacy still lives on. I have Amish neighbors on both sides of me. Still many Mennonites here. I'm out east, so maybe that western drive to the west doesn't apply to these people. Mostly Germans too white to jump :). As an aside I'm not from around these parts originally, so I would exclude myself from that group.

I am personally aspirational, but not to the extent I let it affect other more important areas of my life.I am mostly discontented with anything I do musically even when I get compliments from others. I can accept what I did that day, but never tire of trying to make it better, and believe me, I have a long way to go :) I like challenges sometimes, like the song in Ab a vocalist gave me to learn as piano accompaniment recently. Since I can choose keys to most closely follow the keys I sing best in, I seldom play things in Ab.

I follow the old adage that if we aren't moving forward, we are most likely falling behind. No one stays in the same place permanently.
Having some recent health setbacks made me a slightly different person coming from the other side of it. I'm now attempting to rekindle some of the fun again. Coming out of bad stuff tends to make a person much more serious and realistic about life. I mean, I could be dead right now.

Most of my recent music reflects a more melancholy serious, dare I say depressed side.

Happy I'm not dead, but not the kind of happy I was before that.Life will come at all of us eventually. The pro violinist will need to accept that eventually they might loose some of the capability as they age. Doesn't mean we need to embrace a static position IMHO. It just means embracing a new normal for us.

October 21, 2018, 7:56 PM · " 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?"

Not at all, perfection itself is not a false goal, although the understanding of perfection is itself illusive, so there are numerous ways to approach perfection imperfectly, and numerous ways in which we can miss the forest for the pine needles.

The notion of being content with one's level of imperfection as achievement is a false satisfaction which can be shattered at any moment by a mean step parent or violinist.com post among others.

Myself, I aspire to mediocrity in my playing. Someday..

October 22, 2018, 1:33 AM · OK, I'll have one last go at convincing you all (most) that embracing mediocrity isn't bad. What activity is it that stimulates the largest number of retired people to wake up in the morning with a sense of purpose, a spring in their step and also probably extends their lifespan by at least 5 years? Golf. GOLF! Golfers probably reach their peak (I guess) 10 years earlier than violinists and after that can look forward to nothing better, technically speaking, than 30 years of decline. Does that stop them indulging their competitive spirit or simply enjoying themselves?
October 22, 2018, 10:27 AM · OK, I'm 65, recently retired, and a beginner at violin.

I feel lucky just to have made it to this point in one piece. Some of my former work colleagues are either dead, drug addicts, are facing giganto lawsuits, or just plain burnt to a crisp.

I just enjoy the moment with practicing.
No worries about improving or goals in the future.
I dutifully go to lesson once a week.
Trusting the process and not worrying about the outcome is an unknown position for me and I like it.

It will be years, if ever, before I become even mediocre.

My biggest fear is the inevitable loss of physical abilities so I would have to stop.

And so, regarding mediocrity, I say, bring it on. I shall embrace it.

October 22, 2018, 9:21 PM · " OK, I'll have one last go at convincing you all (most) that embracing mediocrity isn't bad."

Promise? Or will you keep trying?

Edited: October 23, 2018, 2:55 AM · I'm happy embracing my mediocrity on the violin. I have a stack of Etude books, and I know I'll never get to the big stuff. That's fine. I enjoy what I'm doing, I never ask other people to listen to me and the only one I play with is my daughter, occasionally.

I also enjoy listening to music. String quartets and other non-big stuff. Playing the instrument myself helps enjoying this music. I'm not sure people who are constantly trying to achieve perfection in playing the Tchaikovksy in their bedroom are having this kind of pleasure.

Thanks to the media the world has become increasingly caught up in the notion of talent show competitiveness. Kids growing up watching these singing and baking contests. I'm not going to get political, but the world is now burdened with a US president who is the product of this kind of show.

There are probably ten times as many teenagers struggling with getting better on the violin than there are places in symphony orchestras. And most of these teenagers don't dream of being in the string section. They want to be the guy or girl in front of the orchestra, playing the Tchaikovksy concerto.

In addition a lot of people give their five-year olds a tiny violin, believing this is the way to go to Harvard. Just look at all those unhappy faces on Youtube, grinding out suzuki.

Edited: October 23, 2018, 5:55 AM · I've attempted to join this discussion several times and given up, but the people who use the word 'perfection' don't seem to have a legitimate definition it. I've been kicked off Delcamp recently, and the world of the guitarist is a very bizarre one - it spans everything from luthier and concert performer to guys who had a Strat under their bed as teens then got a lesson from a guy who'd had a lesson from a guy who'd had two lessons, and then, 50 years of thinking they were rock n' rollers later, discovered Leona Boyd and had a mixture of epiphany and acid flashback. A lot of the people in that spectrum seem to have been told that you have to have your metronome on all the time and perfection is when you can rattle out all the notes to a piece with the metronome and do it ten times in a row without a bum note or a hesitation ("'cos David Russell's dad made him do it that way"). And I see the occasional Youtube vid where someone plays just that way - with great precision like a robot with NO musical expression. And no offence to the USA, but that seems to be the system in a lot of the music schools there.

I'm glad my music teachers never told me that's what perfection was!

October 23, 2018, 7:07 AM · One can also propose an "Embracing Excellence" ethos. It sounds pretentious I know but I mean in the sense that we accept that learning violin is arduous nd about practicing and improving...and that one doesnt need to make disappointment into a roadblock.

But talking like this is rhetorical imo. The important thing is that theres as little negativity as possible.

October 23, 2018, 7:16 AM · Lots of false dichotomies here-or misunderstandings at least. Nothing wrong in enjoying oneself while growing with the instrument, but a quest for ideal perfection and striving to be a better player every day is not mutually exclusive with it. This has nothing to do with showing off or wanting attention like some politicians and "talent shows" people. Us the "mediocres" vs the "cold, passion-less perfectionists" is not a real thing, in my strong opinion.

Embrace yourselves, whether the results are "mediocre" or a bit better, since no one is really perfect. Nothing wrong with striving to be the better person you can be, whether morally, or with every sort of pursuit in life, fun or otherwise. You don't need to become an insipid, "no fun" artist just because you want to keep improving and making even better music (I do not even like boring performances myself, but don't see how it necessarily relates to this issue of "mediocrity vs perfectionism".)

Enjoy the violin journey, "perfect" or not.

October 23, 2018, 7:39 AM · Inspired is better than perfect.
October 23, 2018, 8:34 AM · Mr. Fryer,

Nothing is perfect, but it's worth it to me to keep developing my craft-and must ideal perfection be the opposite of inspiration?

Many "perfect" and imperfect performances are "inspired", which is ultimately a subjective term.

October 23, 2018, 8:41 AM · In the spirit of Brexit (?) can I suggest a compromise we might all agree on? Our technique is bound to hit the buffers sooner or later so we may as well forget about perfection. Likewise inspiration which comes along rather intermittently if at all. Musicianship, however, goes on improving indefinitely so this is what we should be embracing
Edited: October 23, 2018, 8:53 AM · You misunderstand my irony, Adalberto.

Steve, I wouldn't say perfection (if I believed it had a meaning) meant playing Paganini's first. We can legitimately try in a grade 3 piece for a perfection we didn't achieve when we were working on it for the first time. Indeed there are pieces which appear both in grade 8 level exams and in Performer's Diploma exams, it's just that the Performer's candidates are expected to play them better.

Edited: October 23, 2018, 9:38 AM · This is related to an old false dilemma, which I have witnessed since my music school days: "musical is better than technical, and technically perfect performances are boring". While I also get bored with dry performances-and believe me, these are not "national", as "boring" can be quite "global"-this argument was often used inappropriately as an excuse for sloppy playing by younger players-not the elderly. Musicianship is, I agree, paramount, as technique is merely a necessary means to make music, not THE end itself. But since this unattainable "technical perfection" is necessary to even play the music, it's also a musical goal, and not the enemy of artistry, as it's often portrayed.

As I said before, I ask of myself way more than I do of others, so I am not trying to belittle any of your musical aspirations. Many of you will never use staccato, fingered octaves, tenths, artificial harmonics, and that is fine. A few of us, however, see value in figuring out how everything works, and how we can overcome our technical "limitations" (from a "perfectionist" point of view) to be better violinists-which in turn helps us explore all sorts of violin music. This is not better or worse, just my personal pursuit. I do not require people share my views and goals, but similarly, I do not think individuals should find fault with "perfectionists" just because it's not their preference or lifestyle regarding the violin.

I just can't agree-with all due respect-that musicality and technical progression should not co-exist or are extreme, polar opposites. Sounded illogical back when I was younger, and still does now.

Take care all-this is a trivial matter and individual lifestyle preference in the end.

October 23, 2018, 9:24 AM · Sorry for misunderstanding or misconstruing your words, Mr. Fryer. Be well.
October 23, 2018, 4:01 PM · An important part of the journey is finding something you can be happy with along the way. Even if your goal is to be out in front of the orchestra playing the Tchaikovsky (which it isn't for many of us), having something you can do reasonably well right now will keep the whole thing from turning into a long hard haul which you might tire of and give up on anyway.

As for me, in addition to playing passable viola in a community orchestra, I play 2nd violin in an impromptu quartet which isn't going to win any awards, but which is fun for us anyway. Last night I played fiddle at a bluegrass jam; we played fast and hard, took things right to the limit (and sometimes a bit beyond), but had lots of fun. Again, it wouldn't win awards, but the few people who were there listening seemed to enjoy it.

So chill out. Do what you love, and love what you do. (At least if it isn't your job. If so, we're into a totally different discussion - one which doesn't apply to music alone.)

October 23, 2018, 9:57 PM · Well said Charlie!
November 1, 2018, 5:20 AM · Revisiting this thread in light of my more recent one on leaving the community orchestra. Clearly, there is a limit to how much mediocrity I can embrace. :-) But reading the comments here, I have to comment that there is a big difference between being an aspiring young musician, an older, formed pro musician, and a returner like me. And something occurred to me. I started to pick the violin back up several times during college and grad school, when I had been away from it for 3-8 years. Couldn't do it then because, having not played for a while, I sounded terrible to myself and, knowing I didn't have 4 hours a day to practice, I didn't think I would improve much and hence, didn't think I could stand to hear myself. The irony is that if I had toughed that out, I would likely have gotten back to where I was eventually and continued to improve.

Since instead, I waited 38 years, things are very different. I did sound absolutely horrible when I started back, but I was able to be more tolerant with my imperfections at 55 than I was at 24. Of course, the down side is that it is pretty clear that the years have eroded my skills and my ability to improve, so now I'm dealing with a plateau in terms of improvement and the probability that I'm not likely to improve much more at this point and almost certainly will not get back to where I was--partly because of age and time passed and partly because I have at most an hour a day to practice.

Only time will tell if this is a situation I can live with or not. I think it's more difficult than being a late learner--because I did once play fairly well, there is a standard built into me that it is frustrating not to be reaching now.

November 2, 2018, 3:56 PM · I've learned to be okay with not playing the way I did as a teenager, or even as a first-time returnee (post-decade-off) in my late 20s. A second decade away, plus the inability to spend a consistent 60 to 90 minutes a day in practice, has made a big difference. I figure that in my 20s I got back 80% of what I had as a teenager, and probably now I have back 80% of that level, minus a whole bunch of technical reliability and control.

I don't think it's a physical limitation so much as time and energy, though. I can still play most of the repertoire I'm interested in, and do the musical activities I want to do.

November 2, 2018, 7:47 PM · Yeah--I was practicing 3-4 hours a day in HS, so I guess it's unrealistic to expect myself to play as well on at most 60 min a day (and rarely every day now that I'm not freaking out about the orchestra!). I wish I hadn't stopped playing back then, but the problem is that when you are used to how you sound on 3-4 hours a day,you know you won't sound as good on less, and you know you won't have that kind of time in college so . . . It seemed the best decision back then, and maybe it was.

I feel that I have a good new plan with my teacher going forward. More studies and scales, a focus on the pieces I really want to get back. :-)

November 2, 2018, 8:34 PM · Elizabeth, what were you playing, in terms of etudes and repertoire, when you stopped playing? (I ask because I think it's relevant to figuring out how to recover now.)
November 3, 2018, 5:33 AM · I played the Bach A Minor, Bach Double, one of the Mozart concertos (can't remember which). Those are the ones I remember. The usual exercise books--Sevcik, Kayser, Wohlfahrt, etc. I'm dipping in and out of all those now, and working on the Bach A minor and double because they are familiar, but I can't play them as well as I did.
November 3, 2018, 10:07 AM · It ain't about "mediocrity." It's about love of music and the special meaningfulness of making music...at any level of skill and talent.
Edited: November 3, 2018, 11:11 AM · Elizabeth, I wonder if part of your struggle is rooted in the way you learned as a child. I seem to recall you had good private teaching as a child, but I am not sure you were a late beginner. 4 hours a day through high school tends to produce kids playing Tchaikovsky, or at least Bruch — not Mozart. (I would guess Mozart 3 in G major, in your case?) You also don’t mention Kreutzer — the core etude book for intermediate technique. You’d usually have started it sometime after Bach A minor, and it makes me wonder if you had gotten much beyond the Bach A minor level.

In other words the original achieved level, given the hours of practice, suggests either a late start (say beginning to play as a freshman), being a slow learner, not practicing effectively, or having shaky technical fundamentals. The last possibility suggests that a methodical technical rebuild from scratch might be best. If the foundation was shaky in the first place, it might explain your current struggles. Inefficient practice habits might carry over into the present too, and be hampering your improvement.

November 3, 2018, 5:19 PM · Elizabeth, I'm also a returner--7 year break so not as long as yours but I really relate to the difficult feelings you've been having around not playing as well as you once did. It's quite painful. In addition to the physical/technical re-build work I'm doing, I've found certain things to be helpful for me on the emotional/psychological end of things, and one of these is NOT playing the pieces I was working on before I left, but working on different ones. Like you, i inititially gravitated to playing what I already knew as it felt safe and familiar--but it so, so easily lead me to make a constant comparison to how I played before, and to dig up and dwell on memories of my previous musical life, and that was depressing. I find when I work on new pieces that have no association with my past musical life, i can much more easily adopt a positive attitude about this return, thinking of it as a fresh start and chance to do different things with music than I was doing before. Just something to think about--could make things easier on you emotionally while you are doing the necessary and difficult work of re-building technique with lots of etudes, scales, etc.
November 3, 2018, 6:39 PM · I was no prodigy, and didn't have high-powered teaching early on. For the first three years I mostly puttered. I started in 5th grade, when there was an announcement on the school loudspeaker for people to play stringed instruments, and I wanted to play because my dad did. I played only in school, with occasional private lessons from my public school music teacher, until 8th grade, when I started taking private lessons regularly from the best teacher at very good local music school, mostly because my best friend (who IS amazing) did. I played in junior symphony and then youth orchestra. I practiced 3-4 hours a day in 10th and 11th grades, after which I left HS a year early to start college. Up until 10th grade I practiced less than that (much less than that until 8th grade).

I never said I was amazing LOL,but I did sit first chair seconds in the youth orchestra, which was competitive, and some of my practice time was devoted to that music as a result. I'm not trying now to play like Perlman. I'm just hoping to get back to the facility I had then, when I was able to play decent pieces reasonably well, and enjoy ensemble playing. :-)

November 3, 2018, 6:40 PM · I did do work in Kreutzer. Need to buy that one again, I guess.
November 3, 2018, 6:45 PM · Sylvie--you are right. That may be part of the problem--it's impossible not to compare, since I'm trying to play the same pieces! I thought they would be good benchmarks, but they may just be making me feel inadequate. I have this dream of playing the Bach double again with my best friend, like the olden days, but maybe that is just a mistake. I have a lesson next week and will ask for suggestions. Thanks! :-)
November 3, 2018, 7:03 PM · The Bach Double is an early-intermediate work (and the first movement's 2nd violin part might even be classifiable as a late-beginner-stage work, thus its placement in Suzuki book 4). That should be a readily achievable goal.

If I recall correctly, you're around five months into playing again? I think that's still a rebuilding stage for most returnees, so don't despair. Moreover, if the previous foundation wasn't laid with a great deal of conscious awareness, it's much harder to regain the skill, in my opinion. (For me, my left hand was built with a lot of conscientious explanation on the part of my teachers as to why do things in particular ways, which has made it far easier to get back left-hand facility. But my right hand technique was laid in a way that was more intuitive, which forced me to entirely relearn it from scratch when I came back to playing in my 20s, and even now is requiring a lot more reconstruction work with my second return.)

This is potentially a good time to have your teacher help you go back to basics and lay a really conscious awareness of your technique and precisely how you should be doing things -- kind of teaching it to you as if you would need to be able to explain it to a student in the future, but reviewing violin technique almost as if you were a beginner and needed to move forward one building block at a time, leaving no gaps. I think it's a quicker and better approach than trying to remember what you used to do, and it results in more solid control, leveraging an adult's ability to be more aware, analytical and conscientious.

Also, an adult's motivation and thus tolerance for boredom allows you to spend a lot more of your time working on very pure, focused exercises. If you have an hour to practice each day, I'd suggest 40 minutes of exercises, and 20 minutes of repertoire and etudes. Isolate and re-learn the muscle motions, and re-establish the nerve pathways, and re-teach your brain to chunk all the actions together.

I think it's okay to revisit old exercises and etudes if desired, but you'll be better off working on new repertoire until you've regained a solid technical foundation. It's less frustrating and it's less fraught with confused memories.

Edited: November 3, 2018, 9:17 PM · Apparently there's an advantage to having been a decidedly mediocre, slacker teenager. I am an adult returner, and I'm miles better than I ever was back then. When I think about the way I used to play, it's mildly embarrassing, so I try not to think about it too much. I think I got back to my former level in a couple months, and went from there. The main differences for me have been overcoming the industrial strength performance anxiety that I experienced back then, working on ear training, and practicing more efficiently (and just more) than I did then. It may also be that I started to play the viola as an adult, which was a totally new instrument without any of the baggage from the past. But although I play a lot of viola now, I haven't given up the violin either, and play both instruments.

I don't want to minimize the frustration that many adult returners seem to feel, but I just want to say that it doesn't have to be that way. Not all teenagers are wunderkinds, and there really are advantages to being an adult learner.

November 4, 2018, 12:10 AM · I think Karen is right. :-)

More broadly, I suspect that no one tends to maintain the kind of technical level that serious young students do. I was more like a 45-minutes-a-day kid, save for my final year of childhood playing, where I was practicing 2 to 4 hours a day, every day, for a goodly chunk of that school year. But you can attain and maintain a level of technical facility on that kind of practice time that you can't manage otherwise.

As a returnee in my 20s, I tended to practice in 40-minutes chunks, generally twice a day, so fairly routinely got in nearly 1.5 hours of concentrated practice on a daily basis. I got back pretty solid left-hand facility as a result, but it still wasn't my teenage facility. I had to re-learn all my right-hand technique from scratch, but I think as a result it became better than what I had as a kid. (A better violin and bow helped, too.)

As a returnee in my 40s, I went from averaging about 40 minutes a day on return to averaging about 20 minutes a day. This is semi-irregular, as I don't practice every day, I tend to have longer weekend practice sessions, and I've traveled a lot for business and thus might not play for a week. That average of 20 minutes includes all of those zero-practice days. When I do practice, it still tends to be in 40-minute sessions, but it's more often when I'm tired or not entirely focused -- or it is grabbed 5 or 10 minutes at a time. It's functionally impossible to really get excellent facility / precision / control on that little practice time. However, I'm learning new technical tricks, and my right-hand technique especially continues to improve. (Again, another upgrade of violin and bow has helped that too.)

I reckon that if I could find the time, energy, and willpower to practice at least an hour a day, every day, or better still, double 40-minute sessions with half of it devoted to pure technique, I'd be a noticeably better player. I don't think my present limitations are really a result of being an adult. But since I have other non-music responsibilities, and my performance desires end up requiring me to learn a lot of repertoire (solo, chamber, and orchestral), mediocrity wins out.

In Elizabeth's case, though, she didn't have a conservatory-bound / professional level of capability to begin with. I don't see any reason why she wouldn't be able to readily attain and surpass her old skill level, with some time and patience.

November 4, 2018, 8:48 AM · Yes, what Elizabeth says she played sounds similar to what I played. I remember also playing the Bach E-major concerto after the A minor and double, and playing 3 Mozart concertos (3,4, and 5--not in that order). I also remember doing Wohlfahrt, Sevcik, Kreutzer, and Dont. (Not necessarily in that order). And Hrimaly scale studies. There was a bunch of Kreisler too, because my teacher was a big fan--Liebeslied, Liebesfreud, Schon Rosmarin, Sicilienne and Rigaudon, Praeludium and Allegro.

I messed around with Mendelssohn and Bruch when I was a senior in HS but hit a motivation wall. I liked orchestra but I just wasn't interested in playing concertos. Concertos brought out my performance anxiety, and for me they were associated with auditions. I started crying in the middle of an all-state audition in which I was playing Mozart #3. The biggest wall I hit was the Saint-Saens Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso. I worked on that for months and months, because there I was motivated (unlike with Kreisler and concertos) and then had a horrible anxious, unsuccessful audition on it too, and that was the beginning of the end for me as a violinist (the first time).

When my teacher tried to interest me in revisiting Mozart #3 when I was 2 or 3 years into returning, I had no interest. I went running for my viola instead!

November 4, 2018, 3:14 PM · I was like that, Karen--I knew I wasn't soloist material, I absolutely froze up in auditions, juries, etc, and I loved orchestra. So I worked more on orchestra music than my teacher thought I should, and hence, not as much on concertos as he wanted me to. I think I was a trial for him LOL. Which, I guess, explains my being first chair seconds in a very competitive youth orchestra, but not playing what Lydia thinks I should have. ;-) Everyone does not follow the same path.
November 4, 2018, 3:57 PM · I agree that not everyone follows the same path, but those paths tend to converge pretty sharply when you're talking about high schoolers who are practicing 3+ hours a day.

Orchestra playing was always my primary love, too. My teachers, probably wisely, kept me on the normal pedagogical path despite my slacker practicing (and what orchestra music we worked on was very focused on "in the future, you may need to know these excerpts for pro auditions"). Broadly, I've found very few private teachers -- even those who are primarily orchestra players themselves -- who want to spend lesson time on orchestra music unless there's a very specific reason for it (like audition prep).

I'm not judging either your previous or current paths, merely noting that the way we learned in the first place can have a huge influence on what's an efficient way to return to playing.

November 4, 2018, 4:10 PM · Well, as I said, I practiced that much for a relatively brief period of time. And I checked, and I did not start with the good teacher until 9th grade. Until then, it was just twice a week public school strings class. I wanted more, but my father, despite having played himself, was very tight with money. The only reason I was able to take private lessons later on was because I worked as librarian for youth orchestra. That got me a 50% discount on lessons in exchange for a ton of work. I was serious from my perspective--I adored music, listened to it constantly, revered Leonard Bernstein (this is me, BTW! https://www.theguardian.com/music/2018/aug/12/leonard-bernstein-composer-legacy-inspiration-documentary ),attended all the concerts I could, studied scores. But I didn't have serious lessons until late in my playing and I didn't have massive talent, which might have overcome that. I guess I just want to make it clear that I cared deeply about it.
Edited: November 6, 2018, 1:50 PM · I've had a different experience with respect to orchestra music and teachers, as an adult anyway. And I think that may be why I like taking lessons a lot more now than I did as a kid. My teacher in Boston and my teacher now are both primarily orchestral players. My teacher in Boston was principal 2nd for the Boston Ballet orchestra and she did other freelance work. She also played the viola. We talked a lot about orchestra and about leading a section. My teacher in CA plays primarily with the SJ Opera orchestra. She also has a large and active studio. She teaches Suzuki to youngsters and she teaches adults. She's adaptable and good with all ages.

We work on primarily orchestra and chamber music in my lessons. Most recently I was preparing the viola I part of the Dvorak viola quintet Op 97. The 2nd mvt has a viola solo in my part of about 16 measures. It has 4 phrases, and the viola 2, violin 2, and cello are accompanying with pizz. I decided I wanted to start the solo up on the D-string for tone quality reasons, and later it goes high up on the A. We spent a whole lesson on that solo easily. There was a lot to talk about--vibrato, phrasing, dynamics, shifting, playing high on the D and A with good tone.

This approach to lessons probably wouldn't have worked as well if I were just re-starting. Back then, when I was just restarting, I did Fiorillo etudes on viola and I worked through a couple of the Barbara Barber solos for young violists books. I think that series--"Solos for Young Violinists/Violists/Cellists"--is really good for returners, even if you're not all that young!

Concertos are kind of daunting and maybe not the thing you want to pick up if a friend says, "oh, you play the violin. Can you play me something?" But a short piece out of the Barber book is something you can prepare from start to finish in a reasonable amount of practice time and then "toss off" when the occasion arises.

Edited: November 6, 2018, 2:04 PM · On reflection, my adult learning has been a lot more diverse than my childhood learning, which was very pedagogically and progression-focused, like most training for serious young squirts.

I still rarely bring chamber music or orchestra music to my lessons. But I also take chamber music coaching and orchestral coaching, which alleviates much of this need. I generally bring just the technical problems that I haven't been able to solve, once every few months.

But a lot of my adult focus has been on repertoire that I want to learn, especially recital repertoire, rather than on concertos. Yes, I always have a concerto I'm working on, but also short works, especially short works that pose minimal technical challenge. My teacher has an especially broad solo repertoire himself, and as a result I've been introduced to a lot of repertoire that I'd never even heard previously.

Much of that has been driven by the desire to become a better performer, and my hope is that I can learn to better control my stage fright if I'm not playing anything that's inherently terribly difficult. (It's getting better. My latest video: LINK -- mostly spent in a reasonably calm state of mind and body.)

November 6, 2018, 2:58 PM · Very nice playing Lydia. This wasn't terribly difficult for you? I didn't listen to the whole 27 minutes for lack of time. I am amazed by what I heard. I was nervous for the pianist who was winging it without a page turner.

Elizabeth, to have such an early interest with Bernstein seems to have fueled your desire to play that music. It has taken you to good places in personal development both then and now. Kudos to you both!

November 7, 2018, 6:15 AM · thanks for sharing Lydia! it's always nice to hear fellow v.com members play. just a small piece of unsollicited feedback: take more time and use more bow. easier said than done, I know... in a month or so I am playing Theme from Schindler's List with orchestra, they may make a recording, if so I'll post that.
November 7, 2018, 9:26 AM · Thanks. Timothy, the Strauss is considered very difficult for a violin sonata, but it's not as tough as a typical concerto of the same era. What's killer for me is the rhythm.

Jean, interestingly, my teacher is always complaining that I use too much bow in solo playing. You want more bow and more air in the sound for orchestral playing. But for solo work, a more compact use of the bow results in a denser sound and more projection. If anything, I think he'd want me to consider where else I could use less bow.

That reminds me that I panicked myself in the green-room pre-concert, by knocking over my not-quite-properly-closed bottle of water on the table, and I had my bow on the table. Which meant that I got the bow hair wet. Ended up squeezing the water out on my shirt, putting on some extra rosin, and hoping that it would dry well enough in 30 minutes that I wouldn't need to switch to my backup bow. It did, luckily. I usually keep the bow in the case always backstage -- this was a good lesson as to why it's important. (Overall bad timing on my part too: needed a rehair, needed new strings, and went on a business trip and got neither of those two things done. And now I really, really need to get that rehair done.)

You should totally make a video for yourself even if the orchestra doesn't personally record. You'll want that memorabilia, I bet.

November 7, 2018, 3:14 PM · Interesting to hear that perspective on bow usage Lydia. I guess, anyway, better short dry bows than long wet bows :-)
November 7, 2018, 3:21 PM · I still remember playing for people in my Elementary School when I was 8 or 9 and I was so nervous that I forgot to tighten my bow. It's crazy the kind of stuff that happens before playing sometimes.
November 7, 2018, 6:38 PM · Thanks for sharing, Lydia! You should put this link somewhere else besides a thread entitled "Embracing Mediocrity," because it's not mediocre. Or maybe it can be an inspiration to us amateurs! You seemed very cool and collected. I would have never guessed you struggled with stage fright, but I guess most of us do--some of us just hide it better than others! I appreciated the humor in your introduction. I wish the camera was on the other side of you and the pianist so we could see your faces rather than the backs of your heads! Anyway, I don't know this piece, and maybe it shows a different side of R Strauss than I'm used to. (I played Till Eulenspiegel last year and that was a bear.) I'm not a huge fan of his in general, in that I find his music challenging and not all that accessible, but this was very enjoyable. Your tone is wonderful and your intonation up in the stratosphere is excellent. Nice job!
November 7, 2018, 10:15 PM · That was unfortunately the only place in the room I could fit the camera -- it's actually sitting at the side-door where performers enter the room. Amusingly, the angle means you cannot see the two people driving me nuts -- both of them beating rhythm out of time in two different ways, with one using a big footstomp and one with a big knee-slap. When you see me turn the stand in the third movement, it's in a (failed) attempt to make them less distracting.

I am a tremendously nervous performer! I often have shakes in both hands, although I managed to avoid that this time. And the adrenaline often makes me nauseous, although I've found that I can mitigate this in large part by chewing an alka-seltzer shortly before the performance. In that performance, I'm mentally fairly calm, but the green room was quite cold. (I spent a good chunk of the first movement trying to wake up, so to speak.)

Thanks for the kind words! I suppose I am always intensely aware of my mediocrity, and on reflection, I suspect what we define as "mediocre" tends to be a moving target. As we improve, "mediocre" remains relative to our level.

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