Sunday, November 20, 2011

When will I be good enough?

One of my favourite questions from students is "when will I be good enough to not have to practise any more?"

There are two equally valid and truthful answers to this question:

1. You're already good enough, and
2. Never.

Neither answer, on its own, is honest or fair.  I always give both answers, weighting them depending on where I feel the student is at the moment.

One example I use is Yo Yo Ma's two recordings of the Bach cello suites.  The first was recorded when he was quite young.  Is it good enough?  Darn tootin', it's good enough.  It's fantastic.  But... a few decades later, with all he had learned in the meantime, he realized he had something more to say, and re-recorded the suites.  If you A-B the two recordings, they're completely different.  And yes, there's quite a good argument that the newer one is better -- although that, of course, depends on the listener's perspective and tastes.  But even if you're with me on the second recording being an improvement... does that make the first not good enough?  Absolutely not.  Cellists around the world would probably give their eye teeth to be that good.

But age and maturity, along with the wrinkles and responsibilities, does give us all both a broader perspective and a deeper perspective -- on life, on music, on pretty much everything.

When we start to learn music, to play an instrument, to use our voice, to play with others, our focus tends to be more in the "not making mistakes" department.  Our most pressing goal is to not screw up.  So we practise.  (Eventually, we learn that it's not actually possible to NEVER screw up, and also learn how to practise getting out of mistakes gracefully!)  And we get ourselves to a point when we're reasonably confident that we can make it through a performance or jam session or whatever we're trying to do without falling hopelessly on our face.

We get to that point, and realize that we want more out of music than simply not falling on our face.  We can manage to not fall on our face in many different circumstances (at least most of the time), but there's something more than that which draws us to the music.

That's when the fun begins.

That's why the first answer to the "when will I be good enough" question is so very important.  Because music really has very little to do with getting the notes right, and a student who is terrorized into thinking they're wrong all the time is never going to get to the fun stuff.  And the fun stuff is REALLY FREAKING FUN!!!

I often get students after they've already started with someone who's initiated them into terror.  It's a long haul bringing them back from that.  But last year, I was lucky enough to get an absolute beginner who really wanted to play cello (i.e., this wasn't her mother forcing her to do something).  I still remember the big, ecstatic grin on her face as she plucked the strings and said "listen to that!!!"  I seriously had to force myself to not burst into tears in her first lesson, lest I scare her off.

And yes, of course I still have to make sure she's holding the bow properly and not squeezing too hard and reading the notes correctly and blahdeblahdeblah... but we can also have fun with the music side.  And sure, she's an early teen, so when I tell her to make something up off the top of her head, she still balks and waits for further instruction, but... she is getting better at letting things flow.  I do keep having to remind her she's good enough.  But I don't have to tell her to practise or work hard, because she's paying attention to the sounds she's making, asking for help when it's not a sound she wants to make, and experimenting in the privacy of her room with different ideas -- sometimes coming to a lesson saying "I think I'm doing this, how can I fix it?"

I still try hard not to burst into tears.  :-)

A former student used to come to his lesson, look terribly guilty, and then "confess" that he had used his allotted daily practise time to work out songs he'd heard on the radio.  He always thought I'd be mad, because he wasn't "really practising."  Once again, I had to try hard not to burst into tears... I'd ask him to play it for me, he'd look sheepish, then play it, his head bobbing to the rhythms of the invisible drum kit. After seeing me do some of my singer-songwriter stuff with the foot percussion, he begged his mom for his own, and surprised me one day with his own composition -- he played it for the Kiwanis competition later that year and was rewarded not just with a high mark, but exuberant comments from the adjudicator.  This reaction made him want to keep going, to improve, to learn, to refine, to get better.

There's a common progression when formally learning to play music.  First, we want to make sure we play the right notes.  We get to that level, and then we want to make sure we're starting those notes at the correct time.  We get to that level, then realize we need to finish them at the right time, too.  Then we work on the articulation, then what we do in the middle, then how those notes fit together into a figure, then how they fit into the phrase, then how the phrases fit together into the whole piece...  It never really ends.

Take the Beethoven trio I was mentioning yesterday.  We performed it already in January, we'd worked on it until we thought it was performance-ready, and then we performed it.  By the audience reaction, we performed it quite well, thank you very much.  But we didn't sit back and think "OK, we're done".  We've spent the last several months trying to find more "meaning", subtle nuances, fix sections we thought could be more coherent, found different ways to express and bring out certain phrases.  And we're so much happier with how we're playing it now, we're very excited to present it in a couple of weeks -- and kind of hoping there will be people there who heard the previous version and will appreciate the difference.  But even if there are no repeat listeners, we're thrilled with the new interpretation.

If we play it again somewhere next year or in a few years, we'll probably change it again.  Because if we didn't have something new to say, there really wouldn't be much point in saying it.

I have been a part of -- and left, disappointedly -- several ensembles who got to "good enough" and stayed there.  No curiosity, no desire for self-improvement or ensemble-inprovement, they just wanted to get the job done and get out of there.

Honestly, if you're that bored of the music, if it's just a job, you should really not be a musician.  I'd say the same thing to someone in any other job -- if it doesn't excite you, get the hell out and find what will.  Because if you love what you do, you won't wait for the boss to tell you to get better at it (and then resent your boss for saying so), you'll be self-motivated to look for ways to improve.  Not because you were bad at your job, but because you want to be even better.

Between my "Big Ethyl" incident at the beginning of this year and Don's cancer and recovery now, life has given me a more-than-subtle nudge to figure out what's important and what to let go.  Part of the weeding-out process has been a question of "what do I have time for?"  (The answer, of course, is I haven't had time for most of this, but somehow expected myself to be able to bend the space-time continuum in order to accomplish six full-time jobs at the same time!)  But in the last couple of months, it's also started to come down to: what am I passionate about doing?  There are a few things I never was particularly passionate about, but did them out of guilt or obligation or misplaced loyalty or whatever other silly motivations there are to do things that completely bore you.  There are others I started off doing quite passionately, but realized in a number of recent "ah-ha!" moments that I just don't give a crap about any more -- which means it's definitely time (or past time) to hand these things on to someone who WILL be passionate about them, for everyone's benefit.

If you love what you do, you're good at it AND you want to be even better.

If you're taking cello lessons because your mother wants you to, neither one of us is going to have much fun.  If you're taking cello lessons because you want to play music, we're both going to have a lot of fun.  Like that one student on her first day, happily plucking the strings and listening in awe to the sound, you are already good enough.  Like that same student a year and a half later, bringing me pieces she wants to learn but doesn't know how to reach some of the notes yet, you will never stop practising and learning, because being good enough will never be good enough for you.

Which kind of sounds like a negative thing on the surface, but... it's actually the really fun part.

There's a reason why it's called "playing" the cello, not "working" the cello.

As I tell my students all the time -- go find a video of Yo Yo Ma performing.  Even if you don't know the first thing about all the mechanics and technical things his body has to do to make that cello sound, the one thing ANYONE will notice is that he's smiling, often laughing, having a musical conversation with his fellow performers, with the audience, with his instrument.  He is PLAYING the cello.  He's not worried about getting the notes right (granted, he's had several decades to work on the notes, but even so...), he's not worried about whether he'll screw up (and if you follow his career, it's not because he's remained stagnant in a safe place -- he's constantly pushing his own boundaries and putting himself in unfamiliar musical genres and situations), he's PLAYING.  It's a joy to watch and a joy to listen to.

Even Yo Yo Ma practises, kiddies.  Because he knows he will never be good enough.  But he knows that's a good thing.  And as we all know, his version of "not good enough" is pretty darned fantabulous!

So is yours.  :-)

1 comment:

  1. Wow -- this is a fabulous piece of writing and wisdom.

    Love the analogy -- and I didn't realize that about Yo yo ma and the Bach concertos --I've got the 1983 release. have to get the new one too!