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.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Lessons about artistic perfection from a glassblower's studio

I love the fact that anyone can choose, should they desire, to learn something from anything, anywhere, anytime.  I'm a thinker so my "aha" moments tend to fill my days and nights so when this past week my husband and I decided to go on a little getaway to nearby Staunton, Virginia, I very purposefully set out to make this an "aha-free" vacation.  

You can guess how that little experiment went.

Photo by Mogens Engelund,
 from Wikimedia Commons
The place of my most terrible intellectual crime occurred at a glassblower's studio downtown called Sun Spots Studios.  It is one of those places where you can actually sit and watch artists at work.  I don't know how long we were in there, maybe 20 minutes or so, but I was completely mesmerized the entire time watching this artisan work with glass and I walked out of there with my mind buzzing.  What I was most obsessed with were the similarities I was seeing between blowing glass and performing a piece of music.  Here is a rough recreation what went through my mind.

  • I wonder if he gets frustrated trying to make the object he is making perfect - I'm not sure if all glassblowers work like this, but the one we were watching worked really quite quickly and I could tell that while he was rolling the glass or shaping the glass, he was constantly assessing the state of his piece of art.  But probably because of the fact that he was dealing with molten glass that was quickly cooling and hardening, he couldn't spend much time analyzing what to do next. He seemed to stay in a constant state of motion, acting perhaps on his gut reactions instead.  Perhaps in performances, this is also a healthy state of being.  Not dwelling on what isn't quite right but instead trusting my body, my mind, my ears to react in an artful, appropriate way. 
  • Can a piece of hand-blown glass even be perfect?  What would a perfectly blown piece of glass look like? - A piece of glass made by an artisan is a piece of art.  And that piece of art is all about a creative process, about the engagement between an artist and a piece of material, in this case, molten glass.  So is perfection even really an issue?  I don't think it can be.  Watch a glassblower and you'll see why.  It is hard stuff to work with and can vary based on the weather, the humidity, or the temperature.  It became clear to me very quickly that producing a perfect piece of art would be impossible.  And isn't this the case as well with music?  Is there a point in being "perfect" or is it the process, the creative process, the personal touch of the musician that is what causes someone in the audience to listen and say, "Ah, yes...this speaks to me." 
  • Does the glassblower have an idea in his head of what he wants to end up with in the end? - While he was working, the glassblower narrated a bit of what was going through his mind as he worked.  As he started, he picked several colors of glass chips that he wanted to incorporate into his creation but as those colors started to melt into the molten glass he started with, he kept saying things like, "'s not ending up quite as red as I had thought it would" or "This all may end up a lot brighter after it cools."  So I gather from these insights into his process, that he may have had a very general idea of what he wanted, he knows the techniques behind his art, but in the end, he didn't really know how it was going to turn out.  Perhaps this would be an interesting approach to performing as well.  Instead of planning out every dynamic, every nuance, every sound that I want to hear on stage, perhaps it would be better to accept that art can only be planned so much in advance.  Maybe leaving some mystery in the end result can be a good thing and would relieve some of the pressure to have in the end a perfect, as-planned product.    
  • What does a glassblower do when something doesn't go quite as planned? - One of the last parts the glassblower worked on was the vase's neck and opening.  Using a blow torch to concentrate heat on that specific part, he kept trying to shape the opening as evenly as possible.  Throughout the process he kept shaking his head, reheating, and trying again.  It seemed he couldn't get it quite as narrow and short as he wanted.  In the end, he seemed to quickly change his mind, reshaping the opening to be fluted instead of being just a smooth circular opening.  Having watched the whole process, I knew that this was a bit of an improvisation on his part but for any other visitor, who hadn't seen it, they wouldn't know that the fluted opening was, in some ways, a "mistake."  Audiences don't know what is in my mind before I go up on stage so who's going to know if I need to improvise a bit here and there?  And in the end, whatever I end up with will be a piece of art.
  • A glassblower's creations don't disappear after being created - they are sent to the showroom, to galleries, to be admired and sold.  I imagine there are some pieces that never make it past the studio, but at least at this studio, it seems that most of what is created ends up before the eyes of others, and for a very long time.  They are not hidden away, or considered embarrassing because of tiny flaws, an unexpected hue, or lack of perfect symmetry.  They are all pieces of art and they all have the possibility of catching someone's eye.  If glassblowers can release all of their creations in this way, than why shouldn't I?  Why should I feel sheepish about performing a less-than-perfect program, especially since in a perfect program is, in my mind, impossible anyway.  Instead, I should create and release that creation knowing full well that it has the capability to mean something to someone.  
Create and release.  Accept that there are other factors involved in the creation of a piece of art other than myself and release myself from the need to be a perfect creator.  Perhaps if I can do these things I'll be less squeamish about sitting and listening to my own musical performances with a more accepting ear. 

The things I learn on vacation.  When I'm not supposed to be thinking.

Sigh...maybe next time.  


  1. Funny, but I have been thanking about this very topic. I have always envied the jazz players since even if something came out with an edge, they would just go with it and the combo would accept and go with it too. Your glass blower example is very similar.

    I also had a conversation with someone trained in Europe. We in the U.S. have a perfection complex that doesn't translate there. They are more forgiving and embrace the musicality more than being tied to the rigid technicality. To make matters worse, the rigid technicality has sometimes replaced musicality and has been accepted as what is right.

    For example, I have had a variety of teachers with some of them being very particular with how you played a phrase. There were times I was unable to perform the phrase in the exact fashion they expected from me due to me being a different person. Instead of creating a way I could perform the phrase to fit me and my musicality, I was expected to play it exactly the way they wanted me to. Over and over again I would attempt to play it their way without any results; it was frustrating and sucked the joy out of me in those moments.

    Being technically perfect can sound impressive, but most of the time it is lacking the human, individual quality of a musical creation that comes from the heart.

    There can be beauty in the imperfections and there is freedom in being able to embrace what flows from us and to accept it as beautiful, especially if it does come from the heart.

  2. Absolutely, Shoshana. Thank you for so many of those wonderful observations and for sharing your own experiences learning music and being frustrated with being expected to reproduce note-for-note what your teachers were telling you to do.

    It's interesting. I haven't done that much teaching but even with my very own daughter, in non-musical things, I find when I'm trying to help someone with something it is so very easy to fall into the trap of not being satisfied until absolutely everything is "just so." I'm not quite sure why that is though. Are we afraid that any imperfection in the person we're teaching is going to reflect badly on ourselves? Is it because we as teachers slip into the mode we go to when we're in the practice room ourselves? This is so good to think about because I don't think we want, in the end, to suck the joy out of something as wonderful as making music.

    I have also been amazed, these past few years, at how many mistakes the composers themselves make with their own pieces and the imperfections in some of the greatest musicians of the past. It would be so nice to return to those days. And perhaps we can.

    Thank you again, Shoshana, for reading and for commenting. :-)

    All the best,

  3. What a beautiful commentary, I love your idea about "create and release". It is wonderful to experience other artists in the act of creation like you did here. A work of art--writing, piano performance, painting, glass--is most beautiful to me when it seems to speak from the heart rather than for the technical perfection. I've been writing stories lately and find that in the pursuit of perfection, they can become a bit dry if I overdo it. Sometimes raw can be better, and emotionally authentic is great.

  4. So wonderful to meet you, J.J. I admire writers so very much so I'm always delighted to cross paths with one. I look forward to reading some of your writing.

    I think it's so easy as an artist to spend almost too much time trying to craft our art. What struck me about watching the glassblower was that because of the nature of the material he was working with, he didn't have that same gift/curse of a lot of time to spend "perfecting" what he was creating. There was a sense of urgency that I don't always have myself when working on music, unless I'm in a situation where I'm having to learn something really quickly. And now that I think of it, when I do have those more high-pressure times, those are often the performances that go the best because I couldn't overdo it. Hmmm...interesting.

    Thank you for reading and for your thoughts! You've given me more to think about.

    Happy writing :-)


  5. Oh Erica, this is a very important piece of writing! I know there is already a book within your blog which will be most useful to all of those inmates in the prison of the way things have been done in our field, yearning to be free while at the same time deeply rooted in a firm foundation of pianistic (violinistic, cellistic) technique.
    The entire post is elegant and rich and resonant.
    I could quote it all - but this somehow stood out: 'nstead of planning out every dynamic, every nuance, every sound that I want to hear on stage, perhaps it would be better to accept that art can only be planned so much in advance. Maybe leaving some mystery in the end result can be a good thing and would relieve some of the pressure to have in the end a perfect, as-planned product.'
    The content of your brainbox is rich and ripe for picking. You have so much to offer so many-those close to you (your students especially, and your audiences) are very very fortunate.
    Thank you.

  6. Wayne,
    I am speechless. Your words are like gold to me. I primarily use my blog as a sounding board for myself and as a restful place for all the restless thoughts I always have going in my head all the time. To hear that it means something to someone else, especially you, means the world to me and is icing on the cake. For someone that happens to love icing, that is indeed a wonderful thing.

    So thank you for your encouraging, thoughtful words. I treasure them.

    With so much respect,

  7. Although I'm not a performer, I learned a lot from these thoughts. They apply to performance in general. Well done. By the way, Sir Thomas Beecham apparently under-rehearsed orchestras to ensure spontaneity in performance.

    Best, Alan Yu

  8. Many thanks, Alan, for your comment and for your story about Sir Thomas Beecham. I think it's brilliant and gutsy that he did that but I would imagine it would be difficult to walk the thin line of being prepared/not prepared. I'll have to listen to some recordings now to see if I can detect any of that spontaneity he was after. :-)

    All the best,