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Seeking Excellence


excellence: (noun) extremely high quality

perfection: (noun) something that cannot be improved

I often talk with my students about the difference between excellence and perfection. It's part of my (very regular) conversation about ridding ourselves of perfectionism (which I believe is a destructive force not only in music but also in life).

Often, when we contemplate letting go of our perfectionistic habits we mistakenly believe we have to lower our expectations of ourselves or settle for being mediocre. After all, how can we be our best possible selves without pushing ourselves to be perfect?

I find the opposite is true. The pursuit of perfection is not about wanting excellence – it's about fear. We fear screwing up, showing our vulnerabilities, admitting our flaws, failing (and sometimes succeeding), and sharing our human-ness. When we give up unrealistic and unattainable ideals of perfection, we become much more open to the growth, risk-taking, and experimentation that can bring us to true excellence. When we let go of the idea of perfection, we free ourselves from restricting definitions of success, achievement, and accomplishment and open ourselves up to possibility.

For example, I try to focus on details when I practice – pitches, articulations, dynamics, style, intonation, blend, tone, etc. But the goal of practice – and then performance – is not to get every single detail perfect. The goal of practice is to prepare myself in the details so well that I am able to understand and then communicate the larger, musical picture without getting bogged down in the note-to-note logistics on the paper. I often describe this as playing horizontally rather than vertically (phrases rather than notes).

Without detailed preparation I wouldn't be able to achieve the level of performance I want to have – said another way, I wouldn't be able to communicate effectively to others. If I never move beyond in-the-box ideals of perfection then my music doesn't get beyond the page – it doesn't reach my own heart and mind much less anyone else's. And whether or not you can put your finger on it, you know the difference when you hear a note-perfect performance versus a communicative performance. The difference is that one bores you and the other moves you to leap to your feet, cry, yell, share it with others, and remember it forever. That's a very powerful difference. That's the power of communication.

One of my favorite definitions of “communicate” is “to open into each other.” (Isn't that insanely beautiful?)

Human beings are flawed. So communication – opening into each other – is inherently flawed. That means our art will be flawed. But do flaws negate beauty or meaning or brilliance or connection? Absolutely not.

Excellence is infinitely more beautiful and meaningful and brilliant than perfection could ever be. And the best part is, it's actually achievable.

(For more on this subject, I recommend this great post from Tiny Buddha!)

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