Choosing Risk over Perfectionism

Cover of "Art & Fear: Observations On the...

Cover via Amazon

Last week I received a marvelous book from an online friend. The book is Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland. It’s a quick read but it’s already full of highlighted sections and dogeared pages.  As I prepare my next installment of Schumann’s Papillons for recording on Sunday, I’m starting to wonder if I made a big mistake by jumping into this project so unprepared. I haven’t even looked at this piece in almost 20 years and I don’t even remember if I ever had it polished and memorized. But it’s a piece I love and one I want to keep in my repertoire.

I came across this nugget in my reading to get me over this hump and back to the piano bench this morning.

To demand perfection is to deny your ordinary (and universal) humanity, as though you would be better off without it. Yet this humanity is the ultimate source of your work; your perfectionism denies you the very thing you need to get your work done. Getting on with your work requires a recognition that perfection itself is (paradoxically) a flawed concept….Such imperfections (or mistakes, if you’re feeling particularly depressed about them today) are your guides – valuable, reliable, objective, non-judgmental guides – to matters you need to reconsider or develop further. It is precisely this interaction between the ideal and the real that locks your art into the real world, and gives meaning to both.

And as I finished the book this morning – this:

In the end it all comes down to this: you have a choice (or more accurately a rolling tangle of choices) between giving your work your best shot and risking that it will not make you happy, or not giving it your best shot – and thereby guaranteeing that it will not make you happy. It becomes a choice between certainty and uncertainty. And curiously, uncertainty is the comforting choice.

The Pianist’s Sketchbook

Cover of "An Illustrated Life: Drawing In...

Cover via Amazon

The other day I was browsing through An Illustrated Life – drawing inspiration from the private sketchbooks of artists, illustrators and designers, by Danny Gregory. it’s the type of book that when you flip through the pages, I can guarantee you’ll want to run out and get a sketchbook and a set of pens and start doodling and sketching.

It got me thinking. Why should visual artists have all the fun? Why don’t classical musicians seem to want to pull back the curtain and show the world what inspires them and all the hard work that leads up to the final polished performance. What would be the musical equivalent of the artist’s sketchbook? The musician’s doodlings? The pianist’s process?

Well, I think I found it…. on Twitter. I’m lucky to have found some of the most creative and friendly musicians on Twitter. A tweet about a piece of music sends me right to IMSLP to download the score. Another tweet about a concert and I’m off to read reviews and find clips on YouTube. And a tweet about a productive practice session sends me right to the piano bench.

Here are just a few of the pianists on Twitter who have inspired me to take the leap and start my own musical sketchbook of pieces that are still a bit raw, the collection I call my “Go Play Project.”

Erica Sipes (@ericasipes) has recently been blogging and posting a video diary of her preparation of Beethoven’s 3rd piano concerto for an upcoming concerto competition. Her careful methodical practice has convinced me to pull in the reigns and take the time to check fingering and details and practice slowly in a way that no piano teacher or coach ever seemed to be able to do.

Jocelyn Swigger (@jocelynswigger) is keeping an audio practice diary as she learns ALL the Chopin Etudes, an goal many pianists probably have, but how many of us ever follow through? Hats off to Jocelyn and thank you for sharing the invaluable details of your practice.

The most popular pianist on YouTube, Valentina Lisitsa (@ValLisitsa) pulled back the curtain last summer when she live streamed her daily 14-hour practice sessions. Now if that wasn’t enough to inspire you to go running to the piano I don’t know what would.

And as far as tweets go, I find that James Rhodes (@JRhodesPianist) shares his love of piano with his Twitter followers in the most authentic and genuine way. In my opinion, his twitter feed comes very close to being the musical equivalent of an artist’s sketchbook.  How can any pianist not want to move away from his or her computer screen and head for the nearest piano after reading tweets like this and this and this?

Take a listen to this week’s addition to my “sketchbook” – Chopin’s Fantasy Impromptu, Op. 66.

A Word About Play

English: Keyskills Centre toy piano model BG01...

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Stuart Brown, author of Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul has spent  a career studying play and how even just getting a little play in our lives can make us more productive and happier in everything we do.

One example of this is Laurel, the CEO of a successful commercial real estate company. During her late twenties, Laurel married and had two children, all while establishing her business. Her relationship with her husband was close and compatible, and she adored her four- and  ten- year- olds. She saw herself as blessed and fortunate.

Her days hummed like a turbocharged engine. Up at five, she usually ran four or five miles on odd days and swam and lifted weights on even days. She  didn’t work weekends and usually had enough steam left for “quality time” with her supportive husband and kids, church, and her closest friends.

She felt that she had a healthy mix of play and work, but when she passed forty she began to dread her schedule. She  didn’t yet feel a need to quit any of her commitments or ease off, but slowly she realized that though she had fun with her husband and kids and a sense of enthusiasm about her work, she was missing . . . joy.

So Laurel set about finding where it had gone. She remembered back to her earliest joyful memories and realized they centered on horses. As she reconstructed her own play history, she realized that horses had grabbed her from the first time she saw one. As a toddler she loved bouncing on her hobbyhorse. One of her fondest memories was befriending a local backyard horse and secretly riding it at age seven. She would entice the horse to the fence with carrots and coax it to allow her to climb up and ride bareback, completely unbeknownst to the owner or her parents. As dangerous as it was for a  seven-year-old to ride this way, it gave Laurel a sense of her own power. Later she started hanging around stables, becoming an accomplished horsewoman and as a young adult competing as a professional rider. She eventually burned out on horse shows and settled into marriage and business.

Yet she now realized she longed “just to ride.”

Laurel decided to make this happen. She found a horse to lease and began to ride again. The feelings of joy and exhilaration came back the first time she climbed onto the horse. Now she makes the time to go riding once a week.

What surprises her most since she incorporated the pure play of riding back into her life is how complete and whole she now feels in all other areas of her life. The bloom of “irrational bliss” she experiences in the care of her horse, from riding it regularly, and even occasionally riding again in small local shows, has spilled over into her family and work lives. The little chores of daily living  don’t seem so difficult anymore. (read more)

As a piano teacher, I can’t help but ask myself if my students are viewing piano as their “varsity sport”, rigid and competitive, or if in fact I’m laying the groundwork for them to incorporate piano into their lives for the sheer joy of “playing”?

Oh, by the way…my recording this week for the “Go Play Project” is Chopin’s Waltz Op 64 No 1.  Listen here. It will only take a “minute!”

Out From Under The Burden

A heavy burden

This morning I listened to Greg Sandow’s 2010 Commencement Speech at the Eastman School of Music. He speaks about the future of classical music and how classical musicians can find new audiences, reach people their own age, and share their love of classical music and others people who don’t listen to classical music. I was struck when he said classical musicians must:

“Get rid of the heavy burden of ART.”

I’m not surprised that he and I are on the same wavelength once again. I agree that it’s time for classical musicians to stop thinking that classical music is somehow a higher art-form and we have to educate our audiences in order for them to “understand it.” There’s no reason to keep classical music on a pedestal. Why not just play, and let the music speak for itself?

When we let go of that burden and stop playing music we think we should be playing; stop thinking we aren’t ready or that a piece isn’t polished enough, or difficult enough, or is overplayed, or underplayed; stop waiting to read more performance notes, or listen to yet another interpretation of a piece, or to get another (expensive) coaching on a piece with this or that master teacher; stop relying on judges and juries for feedback about our music; and by all means stop thinking that our audience isn’t going to appreciate what we have to offer because they won’t understand it …then maybe we’ll find what it was that drew us to our instruments (and favorite composers) in the first place.

Maybe that’s when we’ll find that our enthusiasm is so infectious that we’re able to draw audiences to us (for example him and her) no matter if we choose to perform on stage in tuxes and gowns, in a restaurant in jeans and sneakers, in a private home for a house concert (or even by recording and uploading to YouTube and Soundcloud.).

And, by the way, I wouldn’t be surprised if this is also a path to finding the elusive feeling of musical spontaneity that keeps audiences coming to hear jazz and improv but is often missing in classical performances.

***Listen to Debussy’s Sarabande from Pour le Piano – Week #10 of the Go Play Project.