How the plague of perfection slows us down.If you haven’t read any of Deborah Henson-Conant’s article series Harpist Reinvented, do yourself a favor, turn over to pg. 12 right now and read the latest installment “Imperfect Completion.” I mean it. Stop reading this and go read that. When you’re finished there, go read the first two articles in the series from the last two issues of Harp Column.
This issue marks the half-way point in Henson-Conant’s year-long series exploring practical strategies to help you become the best version of your harp self. As she and I were going back and forth about this issue’s installment on how to get over road blocks to complete things, she noted that my suggestion of which sentence to lead the article with sounded like an intervention. That’s exactly the effect I was going for. See I think most of us harpists could use an intervention on this topic, and I would be the first in line for the 12-step program to recover from what Henson-Conant calls “perfectionistic paralysis.” Luckily for us, help is closer than 12 steps away. Henson-Conant suggests one simple, yet sometimes painful, step: finish it, no matter how bad or incomplete it is, just finish it.
If you are anything like me, then you were overcome with a rush of relief after reading Henson-Conant’s article—the pressure of perfection is off. Not that we aren’t all still pushing for our best, but we can’t possibly get to our best when our production is shut down mid-stream by perfectionistic paralysis.
Around Harp Column we have a saying we throw out, only half-jokingly, when we are looking at each other’s work, reading a first draft, or brainstorming ideas for a project: “We’re in the trust tree,” we say. It’s actually a line from the movie Old School that we’ve co-opted to be a disclaimer for our imperfect completions. It allows the creator the freedom to put her work out there without the fear of being judged for how awful it might be and allows the person giving the constructive feedback the freedom to give an honest response without fear of offending anyone. We are able to embrace the imperfect as a byproduct of the production process, though maybe I embrace a little too much at times.
Yet in my musical life, like so many harpists, I struggle to finish things. Is it a harpist thing? Is it a musician thing?
My two oldest kids recently started piano lessons. They came home from their last lesson with an assignment from their teacher: they were to each compose an original piece, eight bars long, to perform on their studio recital next month. “Great!” I think. “This will be a fun project—we can talk about form and style and notation, maybe listen to some early compositions of great composers, and get one of those slick notation apps for the iPad. With my help they should be able to have their pieces written in a week or two!” When I sat down with the younger kid to start working with her on her composition the next day, she says, “But mom, I already did it.” Sure enough, she pulled out a poorly notated eight-bar piece with no form to speak of (though she did add lyrics, which I thought was a nice touch). Free of inhibition or preconceived ideas of the “right way” to compose, she just did it. So then I turned to the older kid, thinking at least there was still one opportunity for me to bestow my musical knowledge on someone. “I wrote my piece last night,” he says. “Want to hear it?”
There it was—zero paralysis, just pure creative production. Sure, neither piece is going to rival what Mozart was doing at age 6, but it was something, and I’m guessing it was better than anything they would have come up with my “help.” Clearly I need to follow the old proverb to not let “perfection be the enemy of the good.” If you need me, I’ll be in the trust tree. •