Perfection & Guitar Playing
Just a question about your own playing, When you were about aged 21-22 had you reached a sense of technical perfection? Was there anything you couldn’t play?
I am tempted to tell you “yes, Charles, at age 21, I had reached a state of technical perfection, and, in fact, there was nothing I could not play”. I’m tempted to tell you that just for the fun of it. But instead, just between me and you, I’ll tell you the truth!
Here is the short version. No, I had not reached a state of technical perfection at 21, and no, I still haven’t at 46! What I have achieved is the understanding that there is no such thing as a state of technical perfection. I have also reached the understanding that the best players do not even think in those terms. The best players, if they ever thought they had reached some state of perfection, would immediately set out to find something wrong with their playing, something they could improve, something to challenge them and keep the whole thing interesting.
They would be like Pable Casals at 90, when asked why he still practiced, he said “I find I am getting better” (Casals was considered by many to be the greatest player of ANY instrument throughout the 20ths century).
No, Charles, there is no such thing as “technical perfection” in terms of some absolute state. There are just things you can do, and things you can’t do. And there is just the ability to understand WHY you can’t do certain things, and then the ability to DO something about it to change the situation.
I am answering your question, (and I am glad, in your innocence, you asked it) because the attitude from which the question proceeds is the MAIN obstacle to yours, or anyone else’s progress on the instrument. And that attitude is there for very good reasons. The biggest reason that attitude is in place, and maintained in its place, is because it is perpetuated by so many players, and people who have something to gain by having advanced players looked at as somehow more than human, as somehow enjoying a state attainable by only the elect few. And the common people are allowed to gaze admiringly, but should understand that they themselves are not cut from the same superhuman cloth. Look, but don’t touch!
Answering your question, Charles, brought to mind something I had written about a year ago on this subject. I think it bears repeating:
This word “perfection” is one of those very dangerous words we use. We use the word as if it actually referred to something. We use it as if there were things that were “perfect”, or people that are “perfect”, or guitarists that are “perfect” (we usually use the word “Master or Maestro”), when in fact there is no such thing. There are many words like this. The word “time” is one of my favorites. We create the concept because it is useful, it enables us to organize our experience into a framework that we can use to live effective lives, in other words, to have POWER. But then we forget we made it up! We think it’s real! We made up the word to organize our experience about the movement we observe about our own sun, and then we live (unconsciously), as if it were a universal fact. We think there is such a thing as a “day” in other galaxies, as if when it is Tuesday here, we think it is Tuesday on Alpha Centuari. WRONG!
So, there are words that we create that do not actually point to objective “things” that we can touch or even recognize. They are simply conditional concepts, created for our use, to give us power. If we keep this in mind, we will have, and increase, that power. If we forget that we created these words, these concepts to begin with, they will control us and limit us, taking our power instead of giving it to us.
If we forget we made up the word time (which has even been proven scientifically by Einstein to have no “objective”, but only a “relative” existence), if we think it is a “something” out “there”, then we can be afraid, get stressful, do the worry thing, because since we think it is a real substance, we are afraid we are going to run out of it!
Now, Perfection is like that. There is no such thing. It is a concept meant to empower us, if we use it correctly. If I think it really exists, and some people are “perfect”, some guitarists are “perfect”, and I should be “perfect”, I will always come up short, since I will always find something in me that could stand a little improvement.
Perfection, like Time, is an intangible, a concept. It is like a mirage in front of us. We reach for it, we travel to it, and it disappears when we get there, to be replaced by something else, a little further up ahead. The purpose of consciously using the concept is to bring out the best in us.
Perfection is an individual thing. It is your awareness of what your next possibility is. Without an awareness of your next possibility, and a striving toward it, you cannot grow. If something is "perfect" it really means it is complete, nothing can be added to it without diminishing it, and making it imperfect. Well, as a guitarist, or as a person, you will never be complete. Nor should you wish to be. To be a perfect person, or guitar player, would mean you had stopped getting better, which is just no fun.
To live these words in your life, you must have a commitment to growth. You must always be “sharpening” your awareness and sensitivity. You must always feel a sense of “creative dis-satisfaction” with where you presently are. You must strive for that vision up ahead, and become bored when you get there, and look further.
As a guitarist, as in life, you get what you settle for. If getting half the notes is good enough for you, fine, be a “good enough” guitarist. If you never even take the trouble to record yourself and listen back to how you really sound, fine, stay in the dark. Keep the fantasy bubble floating until such time as you might have to play in front of other people, who will hear how you actually sound, and let them burst the bubble.
For myself, I am only happy when I am attempting to meet some new challenge. As soon as I accomplish that, I am looking for the next one. Like a shark must constantly be moving, and a rat must constantly be gnawing at something, I find I have to be always moving into and chewing on challenges.
I am actually very happy to discover things wrong with my playing. I was so happy when I noticed that a little tension in my 3rd finger, coming from using the 2nd, was causing me a problem in many areas of my playing. I immediately set out to attack the problem, and improve the situation. I was so happy to have discovered this flaw, since I knew it was the first step to a “new, improved me” as a player.
And as I observe myself and other people, I come to the conclusion that this attitude is one of the primary reasons I have developed to an advanced level as a guitarist.
Let me leave you with one of the most inspiring things I have ever read, in relation to this topic, written by Pepe Romero, one of the world's greatest players - He writes this after his father’s death in 1996 (his father was his lifelong teacher):
"The greatest, most cherished lessons were those that I had with him during his last year. I started the year with firm confidence in my maturity and perfection as a guitarist and as a musician. But my father, with his love,and his knowledge, taught me more in this year that I can ever learn in he rest of my life. We had a lesson every single day that I was at home.
The collection of music I play (on this recording), was an essential part of the repertoire he gave to my brothers and me, so that through our love of it, we could search for beauty and the unattainable perfection that is the guiding light of all the great servants of music."
I hope that you, Charles, and all my readers, will remember those eloquent last words of Pepe’s, “the unattainable perfection that is the GUIDING LIGHT of all the GREAT SERVANTS of music”.