Thursday, March 13, 2014

Does Perfect Music Equal Great Music?

What is the most common complaint I hear from students and other musicians?  "I can play this much better at home."  I even hear this from people that I think did a great job on whatever song it is they are playing.  When I question them a little more, it usually hinges on a lack of perfection, especially from banjo players.  It seems students and musicians equate perfect music with good music.  I used to think this, too.

Many people don't know that I am classically trained on the flute.  It is the only instrument besides trombone on which I have been trained.  I read music very well and spent many, many hours "perfecting" my music.  One of the most enlightening moments of learning came when I was practicing a difficult piece of music that contained lots of fast notes, long notes, and passages with large skips between the notes.  I had been working diligently on some of these passages and could hardly wait to go to my lesson.  I thought the lesson was going really well, too.  I picked up my flute, blew through all the passages in great form, and could hardly wait to hear what my teacher would say.  What did I hear?  "Well, you played all the notes."  I was shocked!  Wasn't that what I was supposed to do?  I had practiced the music forwards, backwards, with different rhythms and with different articulations.  I actually had to ask what my teacher meant.  That was when I learned that music was not just playing a bunch of notes.  It is about emotion, empathy, excitement, etc.  It is about FEELING, and also conveying that feeling to those that are listening.

It also reminds me of when sampling synthesizers first came out.  It was rumored that they would replace all other instruments because they could sound like any instrument (or even any sound, for that matter).  Why will that never happen?  Because music isn't just about a sound.  It is about how that sound is produced, including the tone, timbre, and inherent characteristics of each individual instrument.  You can "sample" a banjo, but unless you can play rolls, slides and hammer-ons, it simply won't sound like a person playing three-finger bluegrass banjo.  It sounds banjo-like.

So what does all this mean?  Is all your practice in vain when you can't play perfectly?  By no means!  When you watch a band play, are you listening and waiting to hear the next mistake?  Or are you enjoying the show?  Most people want the music to be of a certain quality, but what they really want is a good show.  If perfect music was always the best music, we could all listen to perfectly produced music on CDs and be happy.

Don't put your metronome away just yet, though.  Practice may not make perfect, but it does make permanent.  It "locks in" your technique and form, and it is required for memorization.  It is also fun, relaxing (most of the time), exciting, and quite necessary to reach a certain level of musicianship.  So after you've done your homework (practice), put your heart into it!  That is what will bring your music to the next level, mistakes and all!