Monday, September 05, 2022

Why be perfect when you can be great?

We all strive for perfection in our singing. At the same time, we realise that being 100% perfect is impossible.

By aiming for perfection we can become blind to our achievements and how good we actually are.

perfect is the enemy of good

There is an old Italian proverb, quoted by Voltaire, which says something like “Perfect is the enemy of good.”

This basically means that insistence on perfection often prevents implementation of good improvements. Achieving absolute perfection is impossible so, as increasing effort results in diminishing returns, further activity becomes increasingly inefficient.

It takes many hours to reach a good level of singing a particular song. It can then take many weeks to improve even slightly as you attempt to move towards perfection.

There is a notion of “good enough.” The secret is to know when you’ve reached that point!

If you’re always striving for perfection (which you can never reach), you will always be disappointed. Concerts will be somehow less than they could be. Singing a song is just not quite enough. Teaching a song can always be better and is never satisfying.

But once you let go of the idea of ‘perfect’, you can celebrate what you’ve achieved, realise how far you’ve come, and discover how good you actually are.

who are you singing for?

The danger of being so perfection-focused as a singer or choir leader is to forget who you are singing for. There will almost always be an audience, and they will be the final arbiters.

Audiences aren’t generally interested in perfection. They like communication, humanity, and feeling good. What’s most important is that an audience think you’re great. And that doesn’t need you to be perfect.

I wrote recently about How your performance can be a disaster, but the concert a huge success. It’s about how your audience perceive your concert, and not about how perfect you are.

I’ve mentioned before what when I’ve made a mistake in a concert – either as a conductor or singer – the audience will visibly relax. Up until that point they could be on the edge of their seats willing you to get it ‘right’. But as soon as you make any kind of ‘mistake’, the audience realise that you’re human after all and are then on your side.

Kintsugi (“joining with gold”), Japan’s ancient art of embracing imperfection, is an extension of the Japanese philosophy of Wabi-Sabi, which sees beauty in the incomplete and value in simplicity. Cherished pieces of pottery are deliberately broken and then mended with a lacquer mixed with powdered gold, making the break highly visible, celebrating the imperfection. This not only teaches calm when a cherished piece of pottery breaks; it is a reminder of the beauty of human fragility as well.

So maybe next time a concert comes along, try putting in a deliberate mistake early in the performance to acknowledge your humanity and to get the audience on your side!

Imagine that you’ve spent months perfecting your performance, but you don’t think it’s quite ‘perfect’ yet. You might miss out on the audience’s positive reaction when the concert comes around. What a waste! 

Another element of perfection is that if a performance is too ‘perfect’ and shiny, it can lose its humanity. I can be moved much more by a group of villagers singing ‘badly’ than a professional ensemble singing ‘perfectly’.

And if your choir ends up being too ‘perfect’ and slick, it may well put off prospective new singers (see also Never let the fake perfection of pop singers put you off singing).

alternatives to perfection

The Japanese concept of Wabi-Sabi states: Strive not for perfection, but for excellence instead.

Or, in other words: Why be perfect when you can be great?

“Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without.” — Confucius, attrib.

Chris Rowbury


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