Practice Makes Perfect?
I recorded “A Ceremony of Carols” by Benjamin Britten yesterday. I first performed this work for choir and harp as a junior in high school, and it remains an active part of my repertoire today. I love having the opportunity to revisit pieces because it is through repeated performances that I can truly know a work and make it mine. My eyes, ears, and fingers anticipate each note throughout the Britten, and I no longer need to spend practice time learning the notes. Each concert offers me the opportunity to elevate my performance over my last one; each concert is another opportunity to play the piece perfectly.
The exact notes I need to play are printed on the page; the tempo marks, dynamics, and articulations tell me precisely how to play the notes. It takes no imagination to perceive what perfection means — the composer has provided me with explicit instructions. He makes my job easy: all I have to do is play the music he has written as he has written it.
Perfection is a strenuous goal. And as a human, I know it is unattainable. But to practice is to set goals above one’s level of attainment and upon reaching those goals, to set new ones. I conquer each challenge by finding what is holding me back. Was my wrist tense? Do I need to look at the string where I want to land after this note? How much pressure do I need to put on the string before I pluck it to create the articulation I hear in my head? With countless repetitions of the correction, one small phrase becomes perfect.
Practicing a work in advance of a performance means there is a day when the practicing ends. I can no longer hide in the practice room, waiting for that moment of perfection to arrive before sharing my musicianship with an audience. I’m pretty sure I would get stuck, permanently, in my practice room and never perform if I waited for perfection.
When I perform, I have to stop striving for perfection and set a new goal — how to deliver a performance at my current level by owning my achievements where they stand at concert time. If I know my playing falls short of perfection, I need to let go of the notion of perfection. To fail to make this adjustment will impair my performance, burdening me with tension and putting me “inside my head” where I will be hyper-critical of myself during the performance. Performances under these conditions almost always result in execution that falls below my level of achievement.
While I wrote and revised Ellen the Harpist, I often compared my work on the manuscript to practicing. Which means I enjoyed the process, understood how to set and attain goals, and of course, dreamed of writing a perfect novel.
I am working my way through the novel for a final time before uploading it to Amazon, et al. My focus should be on typos and misused punctuation. (By the way — did you see the New York Times front page today? In a piece about the future of the period, they omitted periods at the end of each sentence. They cheated. Each paragraph was one sentence long, eliminating the chance for the reader to lose track of where one thought ended and a new one began. But I digress.) And yet, I’m still picking apart my writing, trying to cut and polish each word, each phrase into a flawless gem.
I have a deadline, and I set my deadline because I was ready to let go of my novel and share it with you. I know I will publish a book with a few errors in it. I know I’ve missed scores of editing opportunities. I haven’t killed all of my darlings. But, as my career as a harpist has taught me, it’s time to take the stage, to let go of the notion of perfection, and to own the novel I have written.