Forget Perfection (or, No Fear)

Artists who strive for perfection in everything are those who cannot attain it in anything.  —Eugene Delacroix

[M]aybe the most any of us can expect of ourselves isn’t perfection but progress.   —Michelle Burford

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Want to learn more about the best ways to practice? Get an e-mail with a discount code when The Practice of Practice is published (June, 2014). To learn more about the book, check out a sample from The Practice of Practice.

Baja Sur, 2001, 8 miles south of Todos Santos at the point break called Los Cerritos I am floating on my board for the evening surf session and it’s my turn in the lineup. The sun glows orange close to the horizon and the angle of light throws the sea into a fractured mosaic of bright spangles and dark shadows. Here comes my wave. It’s big, but they always look big when you’re belly down on the surface of the sea. I know this break well enough now that I can place myself exactly where I need to be to catch the wave with minimum effort. A delicious anxiety clamps my gut as I turn and paddle, making slight adjustments to my position to be sure I’m in the right spot where the wave will thrust upward and crest, breaking in a hiss and foam that will shoot me down its face and towards shore as long as I don’t screw it up.

The sun is bright on the water and on the beach in front of me when something huge and moving towards me  from behind blocks out the sun. The wave. Something about this wall of water big enough to blot out the sun gives me a primal reaction of fear. The fight-or-flight jolt of adrenaline surges through my system and this thing–this massive wall of water–is too big to fight, so flight is the only option. I feel myself rise and then fall past the point of no return, so I pop up and race down the face of the wave for the bottom turn and the fear has vanished. There is no time for it. It returns when I pearl at the bottom of the wave and am shoved toward the sea floor, tumbling, the leash yanking at my ankle telling me where the surface is. Time stretches and later I will marvel at how holding your breath for 30 seconds is no problem on dry land.

Until I began to learn how to surf I didn’t understand the “No Fear” stickers I’d see plastered on cars, stop signs, t-shirts. Now I understand them well, and understand what they mean, their intent. As Paul Maud ‘Dib was taught by his mother, “Fear is the mind-killer.” (this is just a snippet of the Bene Gesserit Litany Against Fear).

We usually think of fear as something very obvious and dire, like perhaps drowning under a giant wave, but fear can also be subtle and insidious, too. Let’s take fear-based practicing as an example. Fear-based practicing is a music killer. It may go mostly unrecognized because of its subtlety, but I implore you to take a look at the role fear might play in your practice.

Do you feel that your music has to be perfect or it is worthless, or unworthy? Do you feel that there is so much to learn that you wonder how you’ll ever get to all of it? Do you compare yourself to your peers or other musicians and feel that some of them “have it” and you don’t? Do you worry about upcoming performances and feel rushed to get all your music learned before the gig so you don’t screw up? All of these concerns, and many many more, are aspects of fear and they can (and probably will) hamstring your practice. Fear, at its core, induces the fight-or-flight reaction, which is a useful way to think about fear-based practice. Will you run or will you fight? And by “you” I also mean me–I still grapple with these issues and probably always will.

Flight is our usual response when we come up against these fears in practice. We skim over all we have to do because there is so much. We fly through routines and exercises and try to cram as much as possible in our half hour of practice (or whatever amount) because we’re sprinting to keep up with our desire to get better as fast as possible. This is NOT the way to go about practice because what you do learn will be of a surface nature, will not stick with you, and will probably be riddled with mistakes.

A more proper response to this fear is to recognize it, and not fall back on the flight response, but tap into the fight response. Fight it by standing your ground and taking time to make the careful steps that will actually result in long term and permanent improvement. This is not an easy task because the monkey-mind we all carry around in our heads is always jabbering away at us in many different voices, urging, chastising, comparing, goading, and all the rest. There are ways to fight these voices, to fight the fear. Going slowly and learning something thoroughly is the best way to fight. The moment you begin to feel overwhelmed or overworked, you should pay attention to how this impacts your practice and slow down, maybe take a break, or at least take a few deep breaths and recite the Litany Against Fear.

I’m not convinced that fear can be eradicated or even that it should be. Fear can provide some necessary dynamic tension that gives you the impetus to really pay attention, to step it up, to tackle the monster* and fight it in the best way you know how, by taking your time, by believing in your perseverance, by trusting in the process, and by recharging your batteries in whatever healthy way works for you. Seek out every source of help you can find and devour it all, but chew it SLOWLY and THOROUGHLY and never, ever stop. You’ll be great if you can do this simple thing.

Have fun and good luck!

Want to learn more about the best ways to practice? Get an e-mail with a discount code when The Practice of Practice is published (June, 2014). To learn more about the book, check out a sample from The Practice of Practice.

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*Here’s a link to the 4 DVD  Marsalis on Music series, one of which is entitled Tackling the Monster: Marsalis on Practice. It’s a great video series with tons of information and dozens of great musicians including Marsalis himself, Yo-Yo Ma, Seiji Ozawa, and many others. The DVD is also available as a fantastic book of the same name and is also chock-a-bloc with great information.

And a gratuitous surf vid of a wave that would scare me no matter how long I try to surf. Yikes!

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