My passion is to help others in the community, young, old, and everyone in between, find relevance and joy in learning, performing or listening to classical music.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

The quest for technical perfectionism in young musicians - can it go too far?

Recently I have noticed an increasing number of young musicians, and when I say young, I mean between the ages of 10 and 16, who are consistently dissatisfied with their "imperfect" abilities at their instruments.  Usually these imperfections are technical ones...they miss a shift here, have an intonation problem there, miss that scale going up...and sometimes, but not usually, they are frustrated by musical imperfections.  It is this quest for technical perfection that concerns me most because I do think that this quest for the perfect performance can go too far and I also think it is unrealistic, at least for most of us mere mortals.  Don't get me wrong.  I am all for working hard, working slowly, learning things carefully from the moment you start a new piece, paying careful attention to the score, and building up fast pieces slowly, but I also believe that once you've built your foundation and then built a strong, stable structure, you should feel free to let go a bit, and enjoy what you have created.

So why all this desire for note-perfectness?  Why does everything have to be exactly like it was in the practice room?  Perhaps some of this has to do with the fact that many recordings that kids listen to today come from recording studios where things appear to be note perfect, sound perfect, intonation perfect, you-name-it-perfect.  Personally, I don't care for those recordings and I don't tend to listen them very often.  When I do listen to recordings, they are usually of live performances because I need to hear the breathing, the little (or not so little) mistakes here and there, the thrill of the cheers and the me that's all part of the music making.  Perhaps if our young musical friends today only listened to live performances of the repertoire they were playing, they would be more forgiving of themselves and begin to focus on something more important than nailing every note.

You might ask, is this really that important?  And I answer with a resounding, "YES!"  If we want audiences to be excited by classical music, if young people want their peers to be intrigued by what they are doing, their passion for music and for performing needs to be infectious when they perform.  I could be wrong, and please correct me if you disagree, but I don't think audiences really go to performances to hear a perfect performance - they go for an experience of hearing great music, of being if they go and instead see a young person simply disappointed in themselves, that can be a terrible downer.  Not a great concert experience, that's for sure.

So young musicians out there, it's fine to be a perfectionist in the practice room.  Go ahead...shake your head, stomp your feet, sigh, grimace, scream, pull out your hair, do what it takes to get it right...

but then be an actor and an artist the minute you step on, create, listen, and love what you do!

Enough of my lecture :-)  Now go and practice, just take it easy on those studio recordings.


  1. Technique is something that one can learn/teach. And it is a VERY important skill, because with no technic you can't really express yourself...It will simply fall apart. You can imagine the most beautiful building in the world, but be unable to realize your project if you have no knowledge in architecture.

    I agree there are many out there playing like machines, but there are things one can't teach/learn/buy. One either has it either doesn't :) One who doesn't sticks to technique. At least that :)

    "but then be an actor and an artist the minute you step on, create, listen, and love what you do!" -- these things are repeated at the rehearsal room 1000 times, they are not to be improvised on stage. Even a genious like Krystian Zimerman practises with mirror and video camera...

  2. Erica,
    Yes you make many valid points in your blog but........ To keep my comment short.
    I haven't met a musician yet that has ever been satisfied not to keep growing and getting better sometimes to the point of obsession. Fortunately some of us know when and where to have a lighter outlook on that kind of thing. I'm a drummer myself(main-guitar and piano too)) and after seeing some of my amazing fellows play went right home to practice this and that. If I have access I'll even try to make a complete idiot of myself and try to speak to the musician on break etc and say" Can you show me what you were doing there? bit by bit. Crazy sometimes? yes absolutely. I agree though with your basic premise No experimenting on stage. Well maybe just a little LOL. Stiving for perfection can be carried to extremes though. Especially if you aren't physically equipped to play or use that technique.

  3. Larry,
    Thank you for your comments. I really like what you say here..."I haven't met a musician yet that has ever been satisfied not to keep growing and getting better sometimes to the point of obsession." Yes, I agree. I think that obsession, or what I like to call passion, is largely what drives me on. I also think it's fabulous that you are willing to step out of most people's comfort zone and talk to performers to inquire about what makes them tick. I sometimes wonder if those of us that haven't made it to the top of the field hold the pros up on too high a pedestal and figure that what they do is somehow out of reach when in reality, if simply asked, they would have a lot to offer us and would gladly share their experiences and tips of the trade.

    And one little clarification...I am all for experimenting on stage, don't get me wrong. Remember, I am not a perfectionist. Well, I am, but I try to let that accompany on the stage. As much as I can, when I hit the week of a performance, I forget about practicing or trying to "improve" anything since I figure it's hopeless at that point and I'd rather not freak myself out. Instead, I psychologically pump myself up and get myself unquestionably excited about performing the literature I'm going to perform. At the performance, I just have fun...that's my main goal, have one heck of a good time.

  4. I am a young musician, and I am very frustrated with my piano technique, and I practise a lot. Any tips please?

  5. Dear Anonymous,
    Wow, where to start? I think the best place to converse about what your struggling with would twitter. My profile name there is @ericasipes. I'd love to talk with you there so that I can find out more about what you're dealing with.

    Thank you for reading!