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In Praise of Imperfection

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A couple of situations during my workshops at the Holland Harmony education weekend back in September got me reflecting again on our relationship as musicians with error. It’s not just that making mistakes is part of the human condition, so learning to cope with and recover from them is an important part of our musical skillset. It’s that in some situations they have a positive value in their own right.

This first came up in my two workshops on coaching techniques. These were practical classes, with participants coaching a guest quartet leading to discussion points about ways to maximise the effectiveness of the process. The first group was working with a quartet put together for the occasion from the halves of two other quartets, while the second had the current Holland Harmony gold medal quartet, LinQ.

For novice coaches, it was far more accessible to work with the unpolished scratch quartet. There were obvious things to do with them straight away, so the delegates could get on with the obvious, giving space for the discussion to focus on the how rather than the what of their coaching. By definition, an experienced quartet with contest success behind them has already dealt with all the obvious stuff, plus their track record tended to exacerbate the sense of impostor syndrome people can feel in their early attempts at doing something new.

The second situation was in the workshop on my Musical Music Team methods. This is partly about developing music team members as musicians, but it also about a discovery process to inform rehearsal plans. As section leaders sing through a song they are planning to introduce to the chorus, every mistake they make is valuable information about the challenges of the music.

As the team identifies the tricky bits, and figures out how solve the problems they present, they are preparing the skills and knowledge they will need to help the singers in their care learn the music. Not only will the process mean they go into rehearsal able to demonstrate it well (itself a means to save a good deal of rehearsal time), but they will be able to approach the trouble-shooting phase of music-learning with confidence and purpose.

This process absolutely relies on the fact that the musical leaders stumble as they learn together. Without these errors, you can’t predict and thus plan for the bits where your singers will need help. Fortunately, because we had human beings to work with, we had plenty of errors and consequently some excellent and collaborative problem-solving. Everyone grew as musicians.

And this is the bigger point. You can only grow as a musician if you are making mistakes. If you are getting everything right, you are just exercising the skills you already have. There are appropriate times for this – performance, for example – but in rehearsal it’s the things you can’t quite do yet that are the most valuable things to work on.

Now at this point I went to try and find where I had written about Daniel Coyle’s model, analogous to the comfort-learning-panic zones I wrote about years ago, but articulated in terms of accuracy. Either my search skills are inadequate, or I never actually wrote about it! So here is a link to his post where he outlines the idea.

What I like about this is that he uses accuracy level as the means to assess the appropriateness of the task for the level. If you are getting it right less than 50% of the time (thrash zone), that’s just too out of control for useful growth, but between 60% and 80% he considers the sweet spot where the errors (and – crucially, your recovery from them) are actively contributing to skill development.

So, it’s not just that we need to embrace imperfection as part of our human fallibility. We need to allow ourselves to be imperfect to fulfil our human potential as beings who can grow and develop.

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