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.
A couple of quotes come to mind:
Following up on Steve Jones's earlier comment, my plan is to try to continue to improve until I reach 60.
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
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.)
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.
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.
"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."
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.
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?
OK, I'm 65, recently retired, and a beginner at violin.
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'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.
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.
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.
Inspired is better than perfect.
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
You misunderstand my irony, Adalberto.
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.
Sorry for misunderstanding or misconstruing your words, Mr. Fryer. Be well.
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.
Well said Charlie!
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.
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
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 did do work in Kreutzer. Need to buy that one again, I guess.
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! :-)
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.
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 think Karen is right. :-)
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Interesting to hear that perspective on bow usage Lydia. I guess, anyway, better short dry bows than long wet bows :-)
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.
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!
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.
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