Paul Graham on “Perfectly Good”
Tuesday Quotes are short explorations of music, life, and the daily endeavor of practicing classical guitar. Find more here. Enjoy!
“Beware of anything you find yourself describing as ‘perfectly good’”
The best interior designers notice everything in a room. They are connoisseurs of balance and proportion. They care how the throw pillows are arranged on the sofa. And more, they have ideas about how and where to put the plugs, switches, lights, and seating.
This comes from experience and training. It’s the same for masters of any field. Concrete contractors tsk or nod at each other’s work, same as any artist.
They go deep into detail because it is important to them.
Most of us do not have the time and energy to hone every element of our lives. “Perfectly good” is sometimes needed.
The garden is weeded…enough. The car is clean enough (crumbs? what crumbs?). The sofa pillows are straight enough.
We choose where to demand excellence and where “good enough” is truly good enough, because to say “yes” to some things means saying “no” to others.
Long-term classical guitar study benefits from an attitude of excellence. We can create high standards for ourselves. Then we can work to meet them.
In a musical practice, “perfectly good” usually isn’t. Low-quality practice leads to frustration, disappointment, injury, and more.
But this does not mean we embrace perfectionism. Far from it.
Instead, an attitude of excellence in guitar practice means we listen to each note. We do our best to craft the notes with intention and purpose. We challenge ourselves and strive for better.
We will make mistakes, but these can be born of strategic effort, rather than sloppiness.
For example, we may spend a few minutes on scales. An attitude of excellence here means that we go slow enough to hear and register each note. We use the best right- and left-hand technique we can. We seek to connect each note beautifully, with minimal gaps. The tone and volume of each note are intentional. We listen to and for every aspect.
A few minutes of this scale practice is more beneficial than an hour of “perfectly good” mindless repetition.
Another example, practicing a piece of music. An attitude of excellence here may mean that we don’t ignore the stumbling spots. Instead, we use practice methods (such as the add-a-note method, or dotted rhythms) to work on the issues. We talk it out and get to the root of the problem.
This all boils down to caring. Caring about the fine details of our work.
Carlos Casteneda has spoken of taking the time but holding it all loosely. “Do everything as if it was the only thing in the world that mattered while all the time knowing that it doesn’t matter at all.”
We don’t need to do everything. But for what we choose to do, for the time we choose to do it, we can bring our best.
Hi, I’m Allen Mathews.
I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two other stellar teachers – one focused on the technical movements, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully.
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