How can you measure perfection? In the context of a test, a perfect score means getting all the questions correct. This requires defining a standard by which to measure all of the participants, but a perfect score is not a guarantee for the very thing a test seeks to measure: the understanding and assimilation of material.
How then do we measure perfection in the context of a performance? On one hand, it is nearly impossible to define a universal rubric by which to measure a performance given the sheer number of details involved. This has quickly become apparent to me because personal opinions about the strength of any given show varies depending on who I ask.
In what seems like a former life, I studied Chemistry alongside Music. One of my favorite teachers said something that has stuck with me for years: he routinely told his students that grades meant nothing to him and that we should not obsess over them. Instead, he said our focus should be on learning and understanding the material as fully as possible and that grades would naturally work themselves out-brilliant advice that was definitely against the grain at a prep school full of kids employing every tactic to raise their GPA in order to stand out on their college applications.
Artists, subjected to a life of terminal perfectionism, should take a cue from my former Chemistry teacher: focus on learning and understanding every nuance of what you are working on to the fullest as well as how the pieces fit together, and, in doing so, the accuracy and strength of performance will work itself out over time. Knowledge itself is a journey: we can only learn at our own pace, and our limited understanding of the world around us is ever changing and much more nuanced than we are led to believe.
In the same way, learning music is also a personal race. Many musicians, myself included, obsess over being able to reproduce the notes exactly in live performance; however, it is quite possible to perform perfectly and completely miss the connections with the music and the audience. When you set perfect execution as the highest goal, you place yourself in a race against everyone else in your field with the only hope of differentiation being that you come in First Place. This is a race that is near impossible to win, “A race to the bottom,” as Seth Godin calls it.
Rather, let us strive to speak through what we create, to connect those who listen to the world we have discovered through our own learning process, and to achieve something far beyond simply playing what’s on the page. These goals require so much more than simply learning the notes: they require a complete understanding of what we are performing in the same way that success in Chemistry requires more than simply acing every test. With these goals comes the development of individuality, artistry, and community. This is the race worth running, and the beautiful thing about this race is that there is room for everyone who has something unique to say.