On When to Persist, and When to Forgive…

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I’ve been thinking quite a lot recently about the balance between being uncompromising with one’s standards, and about when to let things slide. I’ve been having a number of conversations with people about this, and have also (possibly as a consequence) been particularly aware of it as a question in my own praxis.

Clearly, holding people (including oneself) to a level that you know they can achieve is key to maintaining and developing performance standards. Jim Clancy puts transforming good things that you do sometimes into things you do all the time at the heart of excellence; John Bertalot writes about choral rehearsing as being like pushing a man up a greasy pole.

Equally, if you want to explore creative dimensions of your art, you need to accept a degree of messiness and uncertainty as part of the process. Nothing breaks the mood of playfulness and trust when you’re wanting to explore new ways of imagining or feeling musical shape as readily as someone stopping to complain about picky concrete details.

I wrote about this many years ago in terms of the difference between practising for development and practising for polish, and conceived them as phases that exist in time-frames of several months. My old friends the Manager and the Communicator enjoy a similar sense of transfer of responsibilities over time in performance preparation.

But of course not all holding to standards is about polishing; it is also about the basic substrate of what we do, day-in, day-out. If we get used to letting things slide a bit, that’s what we’ll remain good at.

So it’s useful also to think about this in terms of the time-frame of our regular (daily, weekly) practice and rehearsal. And experience suggests that the time to be persistent is at the outset. If we allow ourselves to think, ‘Oh that was a bit ropey, but we’re not really warmed up yet, it will get better,’ then, well, it won’t get all that much better. If we focus at the start on thinking, ‘Just how do we do this? Is that right? What do I need to adjust?’ then we get much more directly to that place where we find the current best version of ourselves.

That in turn gives that current best self the longest possible time to operate, and thus consolidate those neural pathways. Then, when we turn our attention to more creative activities, we experience them with these current best selves. Yes, things may become a bit chaotic, but the chaos will be more beautiful than if we went straight into it without connecting to our skills first.

Part and parcel of this observation is that when we are being persistent about holding standards, we will necessarily ‘get through’ very little music. We will probably find ourselves stripping back to a very small fragment, and giving it repeated focused attention to find that good place. And then when we put it back in context, we may well have to repeat the process, taking several goes to get the means whereby we do it in isolation to slot back into a longer fragment.

If you’re not used to being this pedantically patient, you will likely start to feel a bit antsy about sticking with such zoomed-in focused work for as long as it often needs. You may worry about all the material you had planned to get through that session, or about the other people you are working with getting bored or frustrated. You may find it tempting to let something slide in order to get on with things.

But the thing is, what ever you let slide at this stage in proceedings defines the limit of the level you will achieve in the rest of the session. You’re not going to find your absolute best self if you accept your merely pretty good self in the first phase of the practice/rehearsal. Whereas, if you stay patient and avoid what Alexander Technique folk call ‘end-gaining’, you are much more likely to establish a level that then remains reasonably stable for the rest of the session. If you drill really deep at the start, that is, you won’t have keep drilling that deep for the rest of the session.

(Though once you’re working at that level, you may well find that you want to exercise the same level of patience periodically throughout to nail specific details that slip back away from it. Having the music sound really good is strangely addictive.)

Conversely, it makes sense to do the more holistic, imaginative work later in the session, when the motor skills for your current peak capacities are up and running. This will also be the point at which everyone feels more tired, which makes attempts at extended focused cognitive engagement less effective. On the other hand, imaginative work can actually thrive at those moments when your executive control feels like it wants a rest.

You notice this gradient most keenly on long coaching days: the things you achieve at 4 pm are very different from those best done at 10 am. But it’s also true of a 2-hour rehearsal, or a 45-minute practice session. And the more you have been insisting in your early phase, the more depleted your cognitive resources will be later on.

This is not the point at which to stop and pick up the details. You don’t know at this point whether they’re falling out because you’re tired, because they need a night’s sleep to get fully consolidated, or because they are not yet properly learned. You can come back to them when you are fresh, and the things that still require TLC will helpfully draw themselves to your attention.

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