Perfection vs Growth

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One of the dilemmas that both performers and music educators face is how to manage the balance between practice/rehearsal that facilitates artistic or technical growth and practice/rehearsal that makes a performance more suitable for public consumption. They are both essential for the development of the musician, but they are actively in conflict – you can’t do both at the same time.

Practice for performance preparation is about polishing. It involves getting the technical details embedded so that one can replicate them at will. It’s about locking down all aspects of the performance so that the performer(s) feel in control and confident they know what they’re doing and can deliver it reliably to an audience. Performances that have not had enough of this kind of preparation are dangerously unpredictable and leave the door open for mistakes, memory lapses and muddle.

Practice for artistic growth is about making changes, either of how we use ourselves (changes to technique) or of how we conceive the music (changes to interpretation). It involves pulling apart previously assumed patterns of action and thought and feeling and reconfiguring them in new ways. While the change is in process, the performance is completely unsuitable for public consumption: not only is it unstable in shape and control, but it may even sound musically incomplete or incoherent. This is where significant learning happens.

I tend to think of the polishing type of practice as a carapace, a hard, shiny shell that you build up to protect the soft artistic flesh underneath so that you can safely go out into the world. But the flesh can’t grow inside the shell, so in order to make progress, you have to break the shell and shed it, leaving the flesh vulnerable until you can grow a new one. And, because it leaves us vulnerable, we can often be reluctant to leave the safety of our gleaming polished shells and make significant changes; it hurts to break the shiny surface we’ve worked so hard to create.

So we have to manage when to do each type of practice around our performance schedules. One of the things that pretty much all students coming to study at a conservatoire undergo is having their technique overhauled in their first term. They’ll go from being the best performer in their previous school to being one of many in a specialist institution (itself quite a tough transition), and then have everything they worked on to get there systematically dismantled and rebuilt. This is scary, and conservatoire teachers are accustomed to supporting students not only through the technical and artistic processes but also the psychological hurdles involved. It’s a particularly daunting process for postgraduates on one-year courses – there are barely eight months to unpick and reweave a student’s entire artistic identity. We routinely see several crises of confidence around November, and know that so long as students are feeling more in control by February, they’ll reach their recitals in May in good shape.

The distinction between these two types of practice helps explain the glass ceiling that some performers hit where they work long and hard but never make it to the next level. Their mistake is in thinking you can grow by the kind of practice that you use to prepare for performances. And because they’ve spent so much time and effort buffing up their artistic carapace, it is thick and hard and takes much more force to break than it would had they shed it regularly. The longer you polish, the harder it becomes to change.

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