Over my four decades of studying how to create an ensemble culture that results in consistent levels of excellence, I’ve focused more and more on the concept of perfection. I’ve discovered that it’s not the actual achievement of perfection that maintains excellence. Instead, it is the day-to-day journey towards perfection that establishes the high level of professionalism and excellence for which all music programs strive.
The very word “perfection” in music can bring up negative associations. We have heard of—and perhaps experienced ourselves—the toxic atmosphere that can come from seemingly over-demanding conductors. Our media is rife with stories of these tragedies. One of the more recent portrayals was in the 2014 movie, Whiplash, in which college director Terence Fletcher, portrayed by J.K. Simmons, verbally and physically abuses his students as he pushes them towards his concept of perfection. On a positive note, the movie includes some wonderful musical performances, along with Simmons’s Oscar-winning portrayal and Miles Teller’s worthy performance as the major target of the abuse.
The message that Whiplash reinforced for me was not that aiming for perfection is a bad thing. What Whiplash portrays is that Fletcher unfortunately has set his focus on the actual achievement of perfection and that anything less is only worthy of ridicule and abuse. He berates his students for not being perfect.
The problem isn’t that Fletcher shouldn’t maintain high standards. It’s that he doesn’t focus his energy and skills on teaching students to embrace the journey towards perfection. Fletcher gives no credit to his students for their work ethic, their willingness to do whatever it takes, or their dedication. His mantra is that doing a good job is pointless if the result isn’t at the level of perfection he is shooting for. Improvement is pointless if perfection isn’t ultimately achieved. Nothing else matters but that end product. This is why he is such a poor model for us.
So, how do we inspire students to strive for artistic perfection while, at the same time, understand that absolute perfection is a goal that human beings can never achieve on a regular basis, especially in music performance? And, how can we maintain this constant journey towards perfection without creating so much pressure that the joy of music performance becomes distant and buried? Here are some suggested strategies to address these questions.
Define the Non-Negotiables. Strive for consistent application of the relatively simple things that students can be perfect at. Once you have taught them, and students demonstrate they can do them, these become your non-negotiables. This means that you just about never accept less then perfection in these items. Examples of realistic non-negotiable perfections in a school ensemble include:
- posture when playing
- attention to the podium
- total silence when needed
- reacting appropriately to the conductor
- being fully prepared for rehearsal
- staying “in the moment” rather then mentally drifting
- maintaining respect and courtesy for all
All of the above are within the abilities of almost all students just about all of the time. Once we have taught and established this, then the culture of striving for perfection can permeate everything else we do in the ensemble. This is how so many of our finest directors end up with such amazing, well-disciplined groups that consistently achieve at high levels from year to year.
Note that this does not mean being harsh, mean, or overbearing. It does mean, for a while, that you’ll find yourself frequently stopping and not continuing until the fundamental is corrected, even if it’s only one student or a seemingly small drift. However, always strive for love/joy/support in your heart and your tone, and reminder them that you know they are capable of being perfect in this item. Be explicit in telling them this constantly. Your mantra might be: “Now that you’ve demonstrated you can do this, one of my jobs is to hold you accountable for it all of the time. That’s the only way to continue our journey towards getting close to artistic perfection.” Think of it as a bit of tough love.
Implement a Ladder towards Perfection. While it is vital that you always stop for your non-negotiables, do not stop every single time there is a musical item that is less then perfect. Stopping for every single imprecise musical element, such as a slightly out-of-tune pitch, while students are still in the learning stages is guaranteed to build frustration and tear down their sense of accomplishment. It will destroy the joy in music that we are trying to instill. Here I use a strategy I call the “ladder towards perfection.” You select an ultimate goal, such as playing with consistently focused tone. You then use your skill as an educator to:
determine logical steps towards the goal within the selected music.
- plan lessons to support the development of those steps.
- share the plan with your students.
- focus on achieving each step in a systematic manner over a measured course of time.
- celebrate the achievement of each “step” on the ladder
- maintain the expectation of the achieved step and move on to the next.
The most important steps above are the celebration and the maintenance of that achievement as you move to the next step. Below is a graphic of what that might look like if the ultimate goal is consistent balanced ensemble tone (CBET). Remember that you are working from the bottom up!
Focus on Striving for Perfection, Not on Achieving Perfection Itself. Never denounce or denigrate your students for not being perfect or not performing perfectly. When correcting anything, even a non-negotiable, you need to show your belief that your students are doing their best at that moment. Addressing and correcting problems should be done as positively as possible. Now, are there moments when we should express disappointment or be critical? Absolutely, but it needs to come when there is evidence that there is a lapse in striving for perfection rather then a lapse in perfection itself. The criticism should never be directed toward the student(s) personally. Phrases such as “I know we can be better” will set up an atmosphere of support, unlike a phrase like “You’re not trying hard enough,” which is accusatory.
Teach that Perfection Is a Goal that We Seldom Reach. Balance striving for perfection with the understanding that humans are never perfect all of the time. Teach that the constant journey towards perfection is the reason musicians live to perform. No concert is totally perfect, but our joy is in discovering those satisfying moments within a concert’s totality and how close we can come to perfection. Then celebrate the results!
Remove Settling from the Picture. Striving for artistic perfection means never settling for “okay” or “mediocre.” This does not mean that you never say “better” or “nice” but that you say so in the context of the ladder towards perfection. You also shouldn’t postpone a concert until the piece is “ready,” nor should you refuse to celebrate a concert just because there were moments that were not perfect. Your goal is to move students towards becoming musicians who can leave the stage feeling great about a performance while also identifying items that could be better. The joy of a satisfying performance combined with the passion to get closer to a perfect performance is what is most unique about true musicians and all artists.
Praise the Journey with Passion. Of utmost importance, you must bestow passionate accolades upon your students while they are on this journey towards perfection. Celebrate the journey and the many moments of musical excellence that will result. Celebrate the students’ ability to overcome the many potholes and detours they will encounter. When they get frustrated, remind them that you are asking them to perform challenging pieces because you recognize how the work is making them better musicians. The accolades and celebrations need to be as passionate and consistent as your focus on the journey is. If it’s not, you will drive your students away.
Maintain the proper balance between high expectations and honest praise, and your students will experience more moments of musical excellence then they ever thought possible.
Dr. Neves is the Instrumental Editor for the Massachusetts Music Educator Journal. He is also the Director of Youth Wind Ensembles for the RI Philharmonic Music School and the Coordinator of Music Education for the University of Rhode Island. Neves has spent more than 40 years teaching and directing concert bands in Rhode Island and Massachusetts and continues to be active as a guest conductor, clinician, adjudicator and music education consultant throughout the region. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or via www.dnevesmusic.com