Pursue Excellence, Not Perfection

I am careful not to confuse excellence with perfection. Excellence, I can reach for; perfection is God’s business. (Michael J. Fox)

The snare of perfectionism

Musicians of all ages and skill-levels often face stressful situations: lessons, auditions, performances, deadlines, studio sessions, etc. Coupled with this, musicians tend to put a lot of pressure on themselves. While these circumstances can bring out the best in us—musically, and even personally—they can quickly become debilitating if our expectations are unrealistic.

I have encountered fledgling and seasoned musicians alike who have an internal voice reminding them of their inability to measure up to “perfect” musical standards. And that internal voice is frequently influenced by (often well-intentioned) external forces: the director who places unreasonable demands on an ensemble, the teacher who assigns repertoire far beyond the student’s reach, or the parents who admonish their child to be careful not to make mistakes in an upcoming recital. But if, as Michael J. Fox asserts, only God is perfect, how can perfectionist musicians begin pursuing the more attainable goal of excellence?

A personal story

My own journey toward the pursuit of excellence took place in college. I remember my private piano teacher remarking about a colleague, herself a pianist, “She makes the most beautiful mistakes.” I was dumbfounded by the notion that mistakes could be beautiful, especially after thinking for years that playing all the notes correctly is a performer’s ultimate achievement. The next time I attended one of her performances, I understood what my teacher meant: her ability to recover seamlessly from mistakes was almost breathtaking.

Sometime later, I turned pages for my teacher as he performed a work with orchestra, and I was astounded by how many bass notes in the score he did not play during a particularly difficult passage. After the performance, audience members raved about his riveting performance, and he graciously accepted their well-deserved compliments. When the crowd had dispersed, he nonchalantly told me, “I’ll have to keep working on that one passage.”

A couple years later, I had one of the most important piano performances of my life. When it was over, I recounted to my teacher the mistakes I had made. He responded, “Yes, you missed some notes, and some of the phrasing was off. But think instead of the many thousands of notes you played correctly. And, what is more, you made beautiful music tonight.” My understanding of music had broadened to something greater than markings on a page. Without any loss of musical integrity, I was set free to pursue excellence rather than perfection.

The rewards of pursuing musical excellence

Put simply, those who pursue excellence make better musicians than those who pursue perfection. Freed from the burden of focusing on not making mistakes, they are able to perform joyfully and reach compelling emotional depths. They also make better students, and the world’s best musicians have always been lifelong learners. Musicians who pursue excellence are not threatened by constructive criticism. They understand mistakes are inevitable, and they learn from their mistakes. These musicians learn from rejection, too; they are not devastated by it. They find value in who they are, not in what they do or how they perform.

What can you do?

Choose repertoire you enjoy. Young children just beginning to learn an instrument will always benefit from a thoughtful teacher who finds appealing, engaging music for them to learn. Older musicians must frequently perform music of someone else’s choosing, but they can always find something to enjoy about music they might not like: a fanciful chord progression, an unexpected melodic gesture, or an unusually effective articulation.

Give yourself enough time to prepare well. When faced with a deadline, make sure you can devote enough time to produce something musically excellent. Of course, this will vary depending on your schedule, the musical project, and other life factors. Being well-prepared is one of the best ways to ensure you are calm and centered enough to deliver a musically satisfying product.

Accept the fact that you are not perfect. You will never have a perfect musical performance or write a perfect piece of music. But, you can do your best. You can take pleasure in achieving something you once thought impossible. And, you can strive to become a more excellent musician.

© 2018 Timothy Shaw. All rights reserved.

Piano/Organ Repertoire for Advent/Christmas

It’s never too early for musicians to begin thinking about the holiday season. Read my latest article on Prelude Music PlannerChristmas in July: Piano/Organ Repertoire for Advent/Christmas. This includes suggestions of 10 different collections, as well as links to free downloads of some classical pieces (through IMSLP).

What Can Peanuts Teach Us about Christmas?

Christmas Time Is Here through the Year

Outwardly straightforward in its conception, the holiday classic “Christmas Time Is Here” (from A Charlie Brown Christmas, 1965) displays a high degree of sophistication that belies its apparent simplicity. Not surprisingly, this correlates with the Peanuts comic strip in general—what looks at first like a chronicling of the day-to-day lives of some adorable children (and a precocious beagle and his fowl friend) is actually much more than that. In Charles Schulz’s exceptional world, children contemplate adult issues, and they possess wisdom beyond their years. In the animated films, the portrayal of adults makes the latter point quite clear. Adults are either hidden off-screen or absent from the scene entirely, their voices are muffled (“mwa mwa mwa mwa”), and while they provide information to the children—perhaps even insight—we the viewers are unable to decipher their speech. Thus, only children are able to instruct us, poignantly depicted as Linus recites Luke 2:8-14 in order to clarify “what Christmas is all about.” The unique insights of childhood become manifest as the analytical implications of this “simple” song become apparent.

The song’s complexity is evident first in the misalignment of textual and musical forms. Despite its arrangement into four stanzas, Lee Mendelson’s text exhibits a 3-part (ABA) structure in both rhyme scheme and content (see form chart). Vince Guaraldi’s tune, though, is in AABA (32-bar) form, as are many jazz standards. Expressed another way, ABBA≠AABA. In terms of phrase structure, the form of ‘A’ is identical to the form of ‘B’: each stanza is arranged as a sentence (2+2+4), and each contains a sequence in its second half. Despite this “childish” approach to form, ‘A’ and ‘B’ are quite distinct. The melodic range of ‘A’ encompasses a major-ninth, while in ‘B’ the range is limited to a perfect-fourth. The harmonic trajectory of the two sections is also different: ‘A’ ends with an Imperfect Authentic Cadence (IAC), while ‘B’ leads to a Half Cadence (HC). ‘B’ also includes more distantly related harmonies (e.g., flat-VI), and its harmonic sequence (which includes augmented-sixth “chords”) is more complex than the sequence in ‘A.’ The dual aspect of the formal sections, identical and diverse at the same time, parallels the “both-and” persona of the Peanuts characters: they function as both children and adults.

These surface features reveal some of the song’s complexities, and the accompanying voice-leading reduction (see Schenkerian sketch) points to even more intricacies. Motive x (a descending third) appears as a prominent melodic feature, and recurring rhythmic patterns increase its salience. But the motive also plays a structural role, as the interval of a third is projected over the course of larger spans of music. At the IAC in mm. 11-12 and 27-28, x is inverted (x’), underscoring the tune’s distinctive cadential gesture: an ascending melodic closing pattern. On the foreground level, the motive unfolds from scale-degree 3 to scale-degree 1 (mm. 6-11 and 22-27) while an inner voice simultaneously unfolds x from scale-degree 1 to scale-degree 6. The entirety of ‘B’ is contained in a motivic unfolding from scale-degree 5 back to scale-degree 3 (m. 20), which finds dominant (!) support (V13). The unusual placement of scale-degree 3 at this point in the structure foreshadows the final cadence, where tonic supports scale-degree 2 (m. 28).

The Kopfton surfaces in m. 6, after the melody—which begins at its zenith—arpeggiates downwards through two overlapping statements of x. At m. 12, scale-degree 2 displaces scale-degree 3 (on a middleground level) before leaping upwards to scale-degree 5. Concurrently, the only direct statement of x in the bass affects the transition into ‘B’ (further differentiating ‘A’ from ‘B’), which is arranged harmonically as an embellished descending fifths progression. In mm. 16-17, as one of the song’s most complicated chords “resolves” (G-flat13 (sharp-11,flat-5) →Am7), the bass articulates its only statement of x’. These motivic parallelisms, and their respective locations within the form, not only distinguish the formal sections; they also reflect the imagery of “sleighbells in the air” and, especially, our return from the cold outside to the warmth inside by the fire.

Verses 2 and 3 describe several aspects typical of the Yuletide season: snowflakes, carols, ancient rhymes, sleighbells, outdoor beauty, and the fireside. Verse 4 then expresses a critical aspect of the text: the desire for the spirit of Christmas (i.e., “togetherness,” since “we’ll be drawing near”) to continue long past December 25. This wish for the season to last “through the year” is portrayed musically by the lack of completion of the Urlinie. Despite a number of low-level 3-lines (scale-degree 3 → scale-degree 1), the Kopfton never completes its descent to scale-degree 1 at the background level. The Ursatz remains open, thus the season endures after the song’s final (intentionally inconclusive) authentic cadence, and, presumably, after Christmas time as well. Remember, on the soundtrack, children are the ones who sing this song—leave it to Charlie Brown, Linus, and the rest of the gang to challenge and inspire our thinking. Owing to its lack of closure, their song essentially keeps on going, as if it might be sung again. So, we connect the end with the beginning and learn this: “through the year, Christmas time is here.”

In jazz performance-practice, performers typically avoid ending on an unadorned tonic chord (i.e., without chord extensions) and/or scale-degree 1 as the highest note in the texture. The avoidance of tonic as both chord and scale-degree also factors into the overall structure of many jazz tunes—often the verse and the bridge are open-ended, and the chorus provides closure. However, it is remarkable for a melody not to conclude structurally on scale-degree 1 or, at least, another member of the tonic (scale-degree 3, 5, or 7). [1] Interestingly, “Christmas Time Is Here” is one of two tunes from the film score that end structurally on scale-degree 2. The other is the instrumental number “Christmas Is Coming,” which we hear as the children jam and dance (along with Snoopy, of course) before their Christmas program rehearsals begin. Taking the film as a whole, then, the role of scale-degree 2 as melodic closing signifies the approach, arrival, and implied continuation of the Christmas season.

After his recitation, Linus reminds both Charlie Brown and the viewers: “that’s what Christmas is all about…” For children, Christmas is typically all about things, and they want the season to last in hopes of obtaining more stuff. Theoretically, adults understand Christmas is about more than physical presents. In the true spirit of the season, Mendelson paints charming word pictures, and Guaraldi writes deceptively simple music. The union of text and music—infused with both the innocence and the insight of childhood—suggests the perpetuation of our communion (“drawing near”), which is made possible because of “peace on earth, goodwill to all people.”

© 2017 Timothy Shaw. All rights reserved.

[1] A survey of 700 popular tunes written between 1910 and 1966 demonstrates this point:

  • 86% of melodies end structurally on scale-degree 1
  • 7% end on scale-degree 5
  • 3.6% end on scale-degree 3
  • 1.7% end on scale-degree 7
  • 1% end on scale-degree 6
  • 0.71% end on scale-degree 2 (only 5 tunes out of 700)

Piano Music for Wedding Ceremonies

Playing for any weddings this summer? Need some new piano music to enliven your repertoire? Read my latest article on Prelude Music Planner: Piano Music for Wedding Ceremonies. This includes suggestions of 25 sacred and classical pieces, with links to free downloads of the classical pieces (through IMSLP).

Some of My Favorite Choral Music

Do you have a favorite piece of music? Do you have a favorite composer? I have been asked these questions so many times, and it is always hard for me to come up with an answer. Maybe it’s because the genre is usually unspecified in the question. Maybe it’s because I like to reserve the right to change my mind. Mostly, though, I think it’s because it’s so hard for me to choose just one favorite piece of music. Without commenting on why these are my favorites—maybe I will write separate posts about that later—here is a list (with YouTube clips for you to enjoy) of my top ten choral favorites presented in alphabetical order. I’m focusing on this genre, because I write a lot of choral music. In some ways these pieces are always with me, circling in the back of my mind, when I write my own choral music, so they represent some of my key musical influences.

“Alleluia,” by Ralph Manuel (1987)

“Beati Quorum Via,” from Three Latin Motets, by Charles Villiers Stanford (1905)

“Cantique de Jean Racine” (Op. 11), by Gabriel Fauré (1864-65)

“Geistliches Lied,” Op. 30, by Johannes Brahms (1856)

“Gloria,” from Vespers, Op. 37, by Sergei Rachmaninov (1915)

“Nunc Dimittis,” by Arvo Pärt (2001)

“Only in Sleep,” by Ēriks Ešenvalds (2010)

“Sicut Cervus” (Psalm 42), G. Palestrina (1584)

“The Last Words of David,” by Randall Thompson (1949)

“Zadok the Priest,” Coronation Anthem no. 1, HWV 258, by G. F. Handel (1727)

How to Re-harmonize Hymns

Have you ever wanted to learn how to re-harmonize hymns, to accompany congregational singing? My latest blog post on Prelude Music Planner provides a 5-step process on how to do this. Check it out here, and be sure to download the free re-harmonization of the hymn “Gethsemane” (link at bottom of post).

Two- and Three-Part Choir Music

Choosing repertoire for church choirs is one of the most difficult, time-consuming tasks of all choir directors, whether they direct larger or smaller choirs. There are some unique challenges facing those who direct smaller choirs, though. To support you in your work, I have written a blog post on the topic (with 25 anthem suggestions) on Prelude Music Planner. Check it out here.

Choral Arranging in 10 Steps

Prelude Music PlannerHave you exhausted your budget for new music but find yourself in need of a few more pieces to round out the upcoming choral season? Have you been unable to find a choral setting of a hymn you love? Have you always been curious about how the creative process works? Read my blog post on Prelude Music Planner to follow a ten-step process that could help you to create your own music: click here.