Is there anything particularly disturbing about unripe fruit? Is dough, before it is baked, a bad thing?
I caught one of the wisest sayings I’d ever heard from the headmaster of my school several years ago at a faculty meeting. Roughly paraphrased, he said, “We encourage and teach our students to pursue not perfection, but excellence.” There is a marked difference between these things, perfection and excellence. I won’t renumerate the many points made by psychologists and researchers on the topic.
So… back to my seemingly absurd questions. Before the fruit ripens and the dough bakes, they are still fruit and dough. No one in history (as far as I know) has thought to say there’s something inherently wrong with them. (Any time I’ve asked these questions of my students, they always seem to illicit a quizzical response: “Um, Miss Kim. There’s nothing wrong with unripe fruit or unbaked dough. They’re just unripe and unbaked.”) Away from their instruments, it’s interesting how kids can appreciate that everything unfolds in due time.
The problem with perfection is, when we expect it of ourselves and others, we end up telling our students, or our colleagues, or our student’s parents that there is something wrong with them and/or us, whether it’s through word or through action. We end up throwing in too much fertilizer, or pesticide, or yeast to “correct” the natural process of learning and growing. (I wince now at all the times I’ve said “perfect!” after a child corrected their bow hold. I make it my duty as an educator now to come up with more colorful responses to a job well done.)
Please understand I’m not advocating laziness. Excellence still means we have expectations. We set goals, expect good behavior and consistent at-home preparation on the part of our students. As music educators we are responsible for investing time and energy into score-study, lesson plans and our own professional development.
Making honest, musical mistakes is a valuable part of learning. Find me a person who hasn’t made music mistakes —whether it’s the neighborhood church organist or Vadim Repin— and I promise I’ll go on a roller coaster with you. (I hate those.) In any case, here’s proof that the latter, who even at age 12 proved to be a prodigy of breathtaking skill and warmth, relied on the insights of his teacher:
Sidestep those learning opportunities that come with mistake-making, and only then do they become a source of shame. In truth, to a person who pursues excellence, mistakes are simply little [free] music teachers— the only real failure is to not take a risk and try (which yes, does mean we stand a chance to be criticized.) Good thing constructive criticism helps us grow as well! As for the not-so-constructive kind? Well… we have a choice to put it in perspective and consider the source (probably a perfectionist). Ultimately, we take risks when something is worth it. Continuing in that same vein—If we don’t teach our students to take healthy risks and take those risks ourselves, then aren’t we obscuring the value of music?
There have been countless moments in my musical life where I’ve made mistakes, and those mistakes when viewed under the light of excellence (rather than perfection) have pushed me in the best kind of way to be a better musician. Fortunately, as my beloved undergraduate violin teacher in conservatory informed me on one of my more cerebral days, “we’re not surgeons. If we play the wrong note, nobody dies.”
The good thing about rehearsing a concert program over a period of time is that we get to see the fruit ripen and the dough rise. We have two choices: we can enjoy that process, or wait to be happy with our students the day of the concert. Perfectionism’s “until” becomes a four-lettered word that crowds out the fun of each rehearsal. We can have unrealistic expectations from day one and wait for the sound of the Berlin Philharmonic to chase after our baton, or we can take delight in the process of the developing that piece of music with the creativity and curiosity a music educator thrives on. Some of the most significant goals we may have for our ensembles are long-term and thus easy to miss when looked at through the impatient and narrow-minded microscope of perfection.
And then when it’s time, the well-trained ensemble and the equally learning and growing teacher will be able to enjoy that experience of the performance much like a farmer picking with ease the ripened fruit, or the baker opening an oven to the sights and smells of a beautiful baked pastry —all the more because the journey was made with patience, understanding and total joy.