Friday, January 7, 2011

The pursuit of perfection

Had a lesson last Thursday. I had high hopes this week, for finally killing off the Milde etude (#7, D scales), which I've been stuck on for a number of weeks. Early in the week I spent a lot of careful slow time trying to smooth out and clean up the tricky bits of the etude. However due to circumstances I missed my evening practice the day before my lesson, and the morning practice on the day of, and didn't even find time to warm up at home before I showed up, not having played in more than 24 hours. Not good. After muffing one of the randomly selected scales (I got C# minor) I received a lecture with yet another way to practice scales. The etude I took slow, aiming for smoothness above everything. To me it didn't feel like much of an improvement over the previous week, but maybe it was enough better, or maybe it had stopped improving, and M was tired of hearing it. In any case we didn't spend much time on it, and I got sent on to the next one. The Mozart, too, must be approaching at least a local plateau. After spending some time harassing me about the trills (apparently, they'll sound more similar if they each have the same number of turns) I received a pile of new music to sort through and pick from. It's by no means perfect, but again, perhaps the rate of improvement is so slow, that M is getting tired of repeating himself about what to do to fix what.

Trying to understand some different choices in the Mozart, I spent some time critically listening to different recordings. In addition to the ones I have, I also found that I could stream the entire Naxos catalog through my university library. Pretty nice for doing research. After awhile I started to hear things that sounded like flaws rather than varying artistic choices: a muffed note in the final flourish before the cadenza in one recording, an early entrance on the opening solo in another, that kind of thing. Kind of gratifying in a way: if I hear these kinds of flaws in well-produced recordings by famous people, maybe I'm not so bad myself. I then went back to listen to my own recording I'd been so pleased with a month ago: and it was terrible. So wrong, in so many ways, that I'd hardly know where to start listing the problems. So I'm not sure that developing truly critical listening is necessarily helpful. I don't want to be so self-negative that I give up. Certainly, one of the goals of classical music is to give a really good performance, to be beautiful, to try and play everything perfectly. This idea of the pursuit of perfection constituted the central story in the current high art horror flick Black Swan, so it's not just classical music.

Maybe the thing I need to remember is that it's an essentially infinite pursuit. Studies on skill development claim that it takes about 10,000 hours to become an expert at anything, and talent has little to do with it. At my current rate of ~10 hours/week, if I keep it up, I can expect to be there in 20 years. Nor does it stop there. Pablo Casals, when asked why, in his 90's, did he continue to practice three hours a day, responded "I am finally beginning to notice some improvement." Paul Hanson has a similar remark: "I will never master the instrument and that is fine with me... We never stop learning-the point isn't to finish. The point is always to be going forward with relaxation and a sense of wonderment at all the possibilities."

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