Practice Towards Perfection?
For most of my violin-playing life, I have tried to achieve this elusive thing called perfection. Countless hours have been spent in practice rooms playing a single note or a phrase ad nauseam trying to emulate the perfect ideal sounds ringing in my head. Even in quartet rehearsals, there would invariably be someone who would urge the rest to achieve a thing that couldn't be explained in words that we were never quite able to attain.
Here is Queen Elinor in the movie Brave giving a life lesson to her daughter Merida.
...And cue dismay.
Often times I practiced without any specific goals other than to make it sound really good. I didn’t know what the definition of “really good” meant but knew that it was something I wanted in my violin playing. Of course I was somewhat realistic and knew that achieving perfection in music was impossible and even foolhardy, but I strove for it anyway. I told myself that the journey towards perfection was what counted and hoped that the universe would ultimately reward me somehow.
Well, as you can probably guess, this kind of practicing did the opposite of its intent. It did not get me closer to that perfection that I strove for. Instead, I found myself fearful. I could hear and sense that I was not progressing in a way I knew I could. In performances I found myself rigid and unable to enjoy the creative space that a live audience, with all its unpredictability, provided. It makes sense, doesn’t it? I was striving after an idea. How could I possibly live up to that?
After hitting my head multiple times against a wall, asking a million questions of myself and others, and encountering muses, in the form of friends, books, mentors, and articles, I’ve come to a way of working that helps me to grow for now (I'm sure this process will change along with me in the future). Here below are some questions I ask myself when practicing. They help me to set realistic goals for myself and help me to progress in a pace that is challenging and fun.
What is a larger goal that inspires me?
I found that goals that work best allow you to gaze at the process as widely as possible and help you to get out of yourself. For instance, the goal of nailing all the notes and playing really in tune might help you to do just that, but will you also be able to express and share your music freely with others? I also found that it helps to be specific about the goal and make sure it is attainable. My aim, described above, of achieving some kind of perfection was too vague and also not possible. Here's an example of a larger goal that is currently helping me to do good work and keeping me inspired for the next few months. I want my sound to generously flow out of me and reach others in a powerful way.
What is holding me back from attaining this goal?
When you’re asking this question, it’s essential that you are honest with yourself and also specific. It’s so easy to spew out countless problems that are getting in your way and not address the heart of the inquiry. Ask yourself, “what are one or two specific things that are preventing me from attaining THIS particular goal?” For a personal example, one of the major things that is getting in the way of my larger goal of sound and reach is the flexibility of my fingers when vibrating. Since I have small hands and my fingers are short, there’s not much room to easily get a full swing when playing in high positions and in double stops. This lack of flexibility prevents me from reaching my larger goal.
What is a subgoal that I can achieve in a shorter span of time (week, two weeks)?
This subgoal needs to be challenging but attainable in the time that you have established for yourself. For instance, working towards feeling more freedom in my joints when vibrating is different than figuring out vibrato and never needing to work on it again. Notice that my subgoal was to feel more freedom and not complete because I don’t know what “complete” even means.
What activities am I going to do to help me achieve the subgoal?
I know that my mind and body teeter totter from needing structure and freedom. When you’re creating activities that help engage you to grow, it’s important that you are able to navigate these two sides of you. Plan out activities that help you focus inward and analyze things with a magnifying glass (i.e. exercises written by our dear friend Ševčík), but make sure to also allow yourself to step outside of this zone and enjoy playing without thinking so much from your analytical side. Great activities include improvising using the technique or style you just worked on or playing an excerpt of a piece that uses your new and improved skills.
What do I notice when I'm practicing?
We often do this with A LOT of negative baggage. Our self talk might go something like this, “I always miss that shift” or “why can’t I sound better when I’m playing in high positions?” We might be working for a specific goal but let our negative observations veer us off course. When you are practicing, you have to pretend you are a Zen master. Buddhism teaches that thoughts come and go. It’s not that you don’t notice them or you don’t chew on them from time to time. You let them come and go like clouds which are sometimes threatening and sometimes quite fluffy like cotton candy. Don’t let your thoughts fool you. They are valid, they are important, but they do not have to control you. As I said, be Zen, or just pretend to be. When you play a note that sounds kinda hideous, practice saying to yourself, “wow, that was interesting, let’s try again.” and not, “that was awful and I must be an awful musician.” Practice noticing things without judgement.
Where is the journey taking me? What am I inspired to work on now?
As you’re working you will notice that the process (that came out of your beautiful self) will take you other places that you didn’t on the map. This might come from inspirations from outside sources like performances, articles, people, and so forth or from within. You suddenly notice that you get really excited by the freedom you experience when you’re shifting and vibrating at the same time (Oh, wait! That’s me!). Notice these changes and go along with them. They will keep you on a good and exciting path.