More about perfection == death

Just a quick thought that occurred to me about this issue where classical musicians and students studying it are often paralyzed by the fear of error.

The assumptions as they currently stand in the world of classical music are as follows:

1) The definition of success for a musician is either a soloist spot, or a chair/section spot in a good orchestra.
2) These positions are extremely rare and becoming rarer — particularly the latter as orchestras cut back or disappear altogether.


3) You had damned well better be perfect, because in a world where 200 people are competing for one opening in a mid-level regional orchestra as a matter of course, if you miss one note, it most certainly will destroy you. No jury will choose someone who made one mistake when there is someone else around who made none.

The protestations of music teachers that perfection doesn’t matter are rightly looked at with skepticism by students who are in tears after one mistake. Those students are not hallucinating; they are completely correct when they judge that one mistake will destroy their chances of getting that section seat. Telling them otherwise is cruel. They are looking at the world and seeing the color blue, and we are not helping them when we say, “No, that’s orange.” Not only are teachers invalidating their perceptions, but let’s face it, their perceptions are right. It is blue. Hence that is effing with these kids’ minds on an epic and damaging scale.

The problem of students and musicians being crippled by expectations of perfection will not be solved by lying to them and giving them some BS story about how the jury won’t mind if you eff up once or twice. The jury will.

The problem of being crippled by perfection needs to be solved further upstream than that, at the level of asking why the hell “success” is only defined by having won that 200-candidate competition for an orchestra seat in the first place. If that is the only path that these people are being pushed to take, then we’re out of our minds if we think that they will not accurately suss out the fact that they’d better not play so much as one wrong note.

Once there are multiple paths to success — such as the that of indie-classical poster girl Zoe Keating, or musicians who go on to create their own bands in either classical or other genres — that’s when the crippling fear of mistakes can start to ease up a bit.

And not until then.

For any students who are in tears about one wrong note, it is cruel and inaccurate to tell them, “The jury doesn’t mind one wrong note!” Here’s what you need to tell them:

There are many paths to being a successful classical musician. Session work is one. Composing and writing is another. Making a band with your friends is another — why not put your own music on iTunes or Bandcamp? Working in a rock band is another — see about getting an electric instrument that’s more portable, amenable to being dinged up and tossed into a trunk, and louder, or look into how to amplify your instrument as it is. There is not only one way to succeed, and the other paths are not consolation prizes for those who can’t make it “for real.”

The way to stop agonizing over ruthless perfection is to get the hell out of the atmosphere that demands it, not to stay in that atmosphere and act like it’s not there.

And don’t tell them tall this only when they reach 18 and start to freak out about error after a lifetime of music lessons that taught them the exact opposite. It’s got to be done from the ground up.

This doesn’t even begin to address the damage that a teacher is doing to students when they never teach them improvisation and composition, and then sell them a bill of goods when they collapse after making one mistake. You are teaching your student nothing beyond the skills they need to exist only in that poisonous atmosphere, and then telling them to stop crying when they mess up? *shakes head* If you want your students to stop agonizing over tiny errors, you’d better start figuring out how to teach them the skills they need to survive outside of that perfection-driven atmosphere, and that includes improvisation and composition. Can’t do it? Well then, learn how. “Those who teach must never cease to learn,” etc. etc. If it’s really beyond you, then you’ve got to start collaborating with a teacher who can. School faculty will often collaborate, with science and math teachers, or humanities teachers, working out simultaneous syllabi. Investigate that.

But please, do not prepare your students for nothing but jury-bound competitions and note-perfect recitation and then tell them that music isn’t about hyperventilating, stressing out, or throwing up over errors. That’s crazy.

There’s another post bubbling around in my subconscious about how being a soloist doesn’t just require technical flawlessness but an inability or lack of desire to blend in with the crowd, and how that inherent “funkiness” can be found at all ability levels. I’ll mull it some more.