Getting to my latest gig did, in fact, involve a form of deception, however innocent the reason (and I’ll get to it) but that’s not really the point of this story. This post is ultimately about perfectionism.
I call myself a recovering perfectionist, and, like any person beating back any “ism” in their life, it’s something I have to work on regularly.
These days, the perfectionist monster stays mostly quiet, but sometimes it appears seemingly out of nowhere and roars loudly, trying to convince me that I must be perfect if I’m going to be worth anything. And by perfect, I mean perfect. The right clothes that fit properly; the house in perfect order; the healthful meals planned and made on time; no wrong words said wrongly; no conflict unresolved; the proper amount of water and exercise; the completed to-do list; and certainly no wrong notes! Everything done as it should be.
The last one – wrong notes – often seems a bit easier for me to control than the others, with enough practice. If I just practice enough I can play perfectly. This is what I fooled myself into thinking for many years. One oft-head adage is “practice until you can’t play it wrong.” The problem is that all the practicing in the world cannot prevent an unexpected disaster. Charles Rosen, in his book, Piano Notes: the World of the Pianist, told of seeing a performance in which a renowned, world-famous pianist’s finger tripped on a note, triggering an avalanche of wrong notes. If world-famous pianists can screw up a performance, I know I certainly have that capability.
Can we get to the point where we can’t make a mistake? No, it’s not possible. Believing that somehow we can achieve perfection if we only try harder is the road to madness.
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t attempt to excel. But there is a point where we must admit that we have done all we can do. We have gone as far as we can. We have reached our limit of achievement, at least for a time.
It’s not just a matter of personal effort; sometimes the environment and circumstances prevent perfection. I know many people who expect others to always do the right thing in all situations. But the reality is sometimes that’s just not possible.
My recent gig is such a situation.
Last Wednesday, I got asked at 4PM to play a gig. Two hours later I was at a tech rehearsal for a production of The Addams Family being put on at a local college. That’s a tough show: lots of Latin rhythms, and like all musicals, full of changes – key changes, time signature changes, quick mood changes, and so on. Fortunately, I played the show four years ago and was familiar with the music. But, this time I was playing a different part. I was asked to play keyboard, not piano. This meant I needed to switch sounds AND switch books – sometimes two or three times in one song!
This is where the “fudging” comes in.
I have never played keyboard in a show before, not like this. Not “synthesizer keyboard.” I have always read off the conductor’s score, and I have never been asked to play anything but piano. I wasn’t really sure what I was getting into when I was first asked to take the gig. All I knew was 1) I was recommended by one of the choral directors I work with because I sight-read very well, which is true, 2) I was desperate to play somewhere and this was my first gig in over a year, 3) I was getting paid. After that I realized I was supposed to bring my own keyboard because I knew the sounds on it. Well, my digital piano does have a zillion good sounds on it. I had just never used them. It didn’t matter. The music director was desperate, and so was I.
Off I went, being a “keyboardist” who had never previously looked at some of the screens on the not-designed-to-be-portable digital piano I lugged to the gig and got help bringing in on a dolly.
I fudged my way through some of the music.
I couldn’t possibly play all the notes correctly, given that I had two days to learn my part before the first performance (the complication increased by the nature of piano music – two hands, many notes!) Over the years, I have learned how to skip notes rather than hit wrong notes, so I used this strategy a lot. I couldn’t hear myself much of the time, so I hoped the wrong notes I did play would also not be heard by the audience. I made mistakes switching the sounds, playing the wrong sounds in the wrong spot. Sometimes, when looking at the screen to switch sounds, I would lose my place in the music. Occasionally, I played by myself in a spot where I shouldn’t have. (Thankfully, mistakes like these, while noticeable, are quickly forgotten in such a setting.) I completely skipped a short piece because I wasn’t able to complete a switch in time to begin it. After the opening show on Friday night, I went home and told my husband it was the worst public performance I have ever given as an adult.
I also used Artistic Discretion.
The artistic decisions weren’t just what type of accordion or organ I should use when the score requested “accordion” or “organ.” I also had to choose how I would substitute sounds. The nylon classical guitar sound on my digital piano was terrible, so I used harp instead. I came across a request in the music for “bandoneon.” I asked the music director what kind of instrument this is so I could look on the correct screen page to see if my keyboard had it; he didn’t know, either. I just kept playing strings. I didn’t bother using “glass harmonica” or “baritone saxophone.” Sometimes, I used the kalimba sound and sometimes I used pizzicato strings, depending on what was easiest to get to. I didn’t have time to find “space pad” or learn how to program my keyboard split into two sounds.
Some sound requests were completely mind-boggling. A request for theramin? Seriously? They wanted me to play theramin on a synthesizer? This was a cognitive dissonance I did not even try to resolve. I skipped “theramin.”
It has been important for me to regularly fight my perfectionistic tendencies to prepare for situations like this. I have learned to ignore those inner voices that try to guilt me for not using a clarinet sound in the spot where the book said to! “Artistic discretion” is a legitimate term I can use for breaking the rules.
So what about that deception?
Well, I had to lie to get to the gig, but it wasn’t my fault.
Before the first rehearsal, I was supposed to download the school’s COVID app and “check in,” attesting to having no COVID symptoms. I would get a “green check” which I would then show to the security officer at the gate to the entrance of campus. I couldn’t get on to campus without it.
The problem is my phone, which works fine otherwise, is too old to download newer apps. I couldn’t download the app! On such short notice, the only thing that could be done was to practice deception. The music director texted me a screen shot of his green check with his name on it. If the security officer had taken a closer look, the mismatched name and the phone number revealing a text would have been obvious! Lucky for me and the music director, I nonchalantly passed through security five days in a row without a hitch.
Getting caught up in perfection would have ruined this gig. I probably wouldn’t have taken it if I felt I needed to be perfect at being a “keyboardist.” I probably would have been too afraid to come in two days before opening night and sight-read a part. I would have felt cripplingly embarrassed and guilty about all the wrong notes.
Instead, I knowingly broke the rules. I fudged. I played wrong notes. I skipped notes. I used different sounds than the ones called for. I even deceived security! I got the music director out of a jam, I met new people, I had fun (even though the work was hard), and I earned some money.
Everyone was happy.