Recently, my wife Louise had a minor kitchen accident which resulted in her breaking my favourite tea cup.
As she tells the story (on her social media):
“So I broke Andrew’s favourite teacup.
I felt I should make him a new one in pottery.
It lists a little bit but it works!
Andrew said that it’s the best thing that anyone has given him. He then went on to say that most people would’ve given up and started again once they noticed the listing.
Clearly I’m not most people!”
As you can see from the photo above, my new cup is a thing of great beauty! But as Louise admits, it’s hardly perfect from a functional point of view. The “listing” perhaps doesn’t look serious, but when pouring tea into the cup it’s quite obvious that when one side is full to the brim, the other side is only two-thirds full.
There’s another problem too. Inside the cup, there are quirky recesses that somehow trap the tea, making it impossible to empty the cup when drinking from it in a genteel, civilised manner. Only tipping it upside down really does the trick!
Here, for comparison, is a cup that has none of these issues:
A bit boring, right?
The beauty of my new mug is in its imperfection: its quirkiness, vibrant personality, its energy. And central to all that, the fact that it was borne of relationship, made with love.
Right Notes, Wrong Energy?
The positive energy that came pre-packaged with my new tea cup can likewise infuse our piano playing, and is actually a lot more important than simply playing the right notes.
And yet we too often berate ourselves (and each other) for the minor imperfections that supposedly mar our playing. And in so doing, we often shoot ourselves in the foot by focusing too much attention on one aspect of our making music: the technical.
It is so important to remember that musical technique is but one of the Three Treasures of Musical Learning, the equally important other two being musical essence and musical understanding, both of which play an important part in our playing and performing.
Piano playing should not in my view be merely utilitarian, contrived to get full marks in an examination room, to win a competition, or to produce a characterless “demo”.
Our playing can be so much more: a genuine act of beauty, love and expression. Will we settle for playing that is merely prosaic, or invoke our technique as a catalyst for true poetry?
We live in a time where, in part due to the easy availability of “perfect” recordings, there’s a pull towards sterility when it comes to interpretive decisions, and a diminution of character in too much of the playing we hear.
The Truth of Music
In my recent article Piano Teaching and the Art of Criticism, I wrote:
“To perform a piece with accuracy is not so much to play it perfectly as to communicate its truth.”
The truth of all music goes well beyond the dots and lines written on the page; hence the importance of musical demonstration and aural impartation in teaching. Obviously we all want to faithfully follow a composer’s instructions, but even when some notes are missed it is still possible to communicate with warmth and conviction the “truth” of the piece behind the notes.
And music is equally a personal response. The best musicians, it seems to me, always have something to say through their performances. It is a mistake to conflate professionalism with perfection.
Nor am I just thinking of concert virtuosi. Whether a nervous novice or an amateur player fluffing the notes, we can all make it our aim to communicate from the soul through our playing.
But the pursuit of perfection can actually be one of the most subtle and corrosive deterrents to genuine musical engagement.
Again, I’m not suggesting we should ever welcome sloppiness in our playing, or be indisciplined in our practice; rather that we would do well to balance our technical goals with creative and artistic ones, and evaluate our “success” on a more holistic basis.
And if we exercise a little self-compassion, performing (by which I mean sharing our playing with others) can also become a less scary monster!
Drinking from the wonky cup
My new tea cup is a delightful reminder of Laozi’s point that perfection is intangible, an artificial construct without an obvious parallel in nature.
“One does not walk into the forest and accuse the trees of being off-centre, nor do they visit the shore and call the waves imperfect. So why do we look at ourselves this way?”
And of course, if perfection isn’t “a thing”…
… then imperfection isn’t “a thing” either.
Perhaps everything is already perfect; perhaps nothing ever will be. So let’s get on with enjoying the music!
As I slurped the remnants of my tea from the bottom of my wonderfully artistic but slightly wonky cup, Louise and I looked at each other and burst into a shared laughter that was loud and long.
If we could, as piano players and teachers, have a lighter spirit and be kinder to ourselves and each other, I suspect we might well find that our pursuit of excellence and our appreciation of the beauty within “imperfection” go hand in hand.