There’s no getting around it. Learning to play the piano is hard. The narrative of my life is punctuated with countless hours sitting on a piano bench learning the craft of the piano. I am still scarred by an amalgamated childhood memory of me looking out the window, watching my brothers play in the front yard, while I stayed inside to practice. I’ve played my scales and finger exercises religiously since I was five, rehearsed a million songs, performed thousands of gigs, played billions of notes.
Occasionally, people will ask me how I make playing the piano seem so effortless. My typical reply is that there are just so many mistakes a person makes in one’s musical life, and I’ve made most of those mistakes already, when no one was listening. So when I play publicly, most all of the notes are right ones.
The Latin word for “art” is “tecnicus,” from which we derive the word, “technique.” Art is something that must be developed and honed and rehearsed, in order to attain skill and competency. Musicians must spend time playing to the metronome, dancers must spend time bending over the ballet barre, sculptors must develop calluses leaning into the clay. It’s part of our calling.
It’s like any discipline. People are amazed when Steph Curry drains another three-point shot from far behind the arc. But the reality is, he’s made that shot thousands of times—maybe tens of thousands of times—during practice, over the course of his life. So when the fourth quarter winds down, he is ready. The same devotion to skill and competency goes for performing brain surgery, flying a commercial airplane, cooking a gourmet meal, and landing a triple axel. Anything done skillfully has been accompanied by hours and hours of disciplined practice.
How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice.
But I do take exception to the well-worn expression, “practice makes perfect.” Not that it isn’t true. It’s that I simply disagree that perfection should be the end goal of practice. Let me give you three reasons why.
Perfection vs. Excellence
Voltaire once said that, “Perfect is the enemy of good.” And indeed, this quote is ripe with implications. The attainment of perfection is nearly impossible, so the unhealthy striving for it can lead to futility, frustration, burn-out, even paralysis. The principle of diminishing returns is a real thing.
Perfectionism, in its extreme, becomes not about doing great things, but of avoiding failure. As such, it has a negative orientation, where you treat yourself and others as a means to an end, commodities to be used, report cards that need grading. Ultimately, it is a toxic, soul-crushing orientation, because none of us are ever good enough to attain perfection. And in that sense, perfectionism is the opposite of grace.
I’ve known a few talented musicians who were never able to put out their “solo album” because they were never satisfied with their work. And I’ve known visual artists who, bound by their own perfectionism, never actually create any meaningful art, due to a fear of creating something less than perfect. Indeed, one can spend a lot of time and energy and resources chasing the wrong endgame.
In contrast, excellence can be defined as “doing the best with what you have.” Excellence is a biblical concept (note the principles of “first fruits” and also “the parable of the talents”). Excellence is taking the talents and passions that God gives you, and stewarding them through the purposeful development of one’s craft. God deserves our excellence, and is honored by it. As Christian artists, we should strive not toward perfection but to God-honoring and grace-filled excellence.
Perfection vs. Expression
One of the fun things about jazz is playing solos. Under a particular underpinning of groove and chord changes, one is given the opportunity to improvise whatever moves you. It’s like speaking extemporaneously, without a script, using the musical vocabulary of riffs and scales and harmony. The thing is, improvising requires a great deal of practice. It might sound counter-intuitive, but making up something out of nothing requires lots and lots and lots of preparation.
It is through practice that muscle memory is formed, technique is honed, musical phrases are discovered, and one’s unique voice becomes defined. This is just as true for the concert pianist, the modern dancer, the sushi chef, the rapper, the oil painter. Practice is not for the sake of perfection, but for the sake of greater expression. For those of us who strive toward greater expression in our art forms, practice is a necessary—and gratifying—aspect of our craft.
Perfection is Boring
One of my current favorite guilty pleasures is the youtuber, Rick Beato. In fact, every musician I know loves this guy’s channel. And for good reason.
One of the things Beato brilliantly demonstrates is how modern techniques like quantization and autotune—methods now commonly used in all recording studios—are stripping the humanity out of music. Without the imperfections of the human voice, or the ebb and flow of tempo, or the simple slight variations between takes, we lose a piece of what makes music alive.
The point he makes is that music is an expression of people, not of some artificial, computer-generated pop sensibility. So much of the current genre is produced to be perfectly in tune, perfectly in tempo, perfectly crafted for maximum pop. But why does it feel lifeless and boring?
In our souls, I believe we still crave expressions of the heart. This is why we still favor micro-brewed beer and handcrafted items and avant-garde bistros. This is why generations of young people still listen to the music of decades past. As humans made in the image of God, we should strive to be human in our art. In the most un-boring way possible.
As Christian artists, our model for creation is found in Genesis 1. Our Creator God creates cosmos from chaos—the stars, the planets, the seas and the sky, the dry ground, plants and animals. And at the end of every day, He never said it was perfect. He said it was good.
It is in our humanity that God finds the very good.