Perfection is a standard that – in almost every case – can never be met. How many lines can really be drawn “perfectly” straight? And for those of us working in the arts, what exactly does “perfect” mean? Can an oil painting, or a musical performance, be considered “perfect”?
But it’s a term I use when teaching music fairly frequently. A while back I was working with my 2nd-year (5th grade) alto saxophone section. I was rehearsing a small gesture, just a few notes, and it sounded rough. Each time we repaired a performance error another one emerged. Someone missed an accidental. Another held a note too long for the staccato articulation. Then another rushed the rhythm… and so on. I explained that there was no reason that we – as a section – shouldn’t be able to play this small phrase perfectly. One of the more insightful girls in the section asked aloud, “Isn’t it impossible to play it absolutely perfect?” This was the perfect (excuse the pun) time to launch into a favorite pedagogical sermon of mine!
Perfection – I pointed out – is not the point, but rather the striving for perfection, or for beauty, or for excellence. I drew two horizontal lines on the board, one very high near the top of the board and one in the middle. The top line represented perfection; the lower line represented being average (or with older kids, mediocrity). If we strive to play our saxophones perfectly but (and here I drew an “x” just shy of the top line) fall a little short, you can see we’re still pretty darn good… some might call it excellent. But if we only strive to be average (and here I drew an “x” just shy of the line in the middle) and fall short because we don’t care enough, then we’re not even mediocre. You see, there’s no shame in aiming for a model of perfection.
Those saxes and I played a few more times and eventually they all played together in a way that was really excellent, especially for such young players. All seven played the right notes, were rhythmically tight, and used the correct articulations. It was only a small phrase, and frankly I don’t have the time in a 30-minute group sectional to always lead them to an experience with such excellence, but I strive to do just that at least once in every group lesson or rehearsal I lead.
This idea of bringing students into an encounter with excellence at least once each rehearsal isn’t original. I first heard it from my college mentor and good friend, Ken Laudermilch. Ken led the Wind Ensemble and taught trumpet at West Chester University when I was an undergraduate Music Education major there. When he was still teaching, Ken allowed me to use his university wind ensemble to record a piece I had recently written as a commission for a middle school band. In return, he asked me to talk to the students about teaching in the schools. I rehearsed my piece for about 15 minutes. They more or less “nailed it” when they sight-read it! After polishing a few spots, I told Ken I was ready to record. Ken gave the students a five-minute break and pulled me aside, saying, “I don’t want them to get off this easy. Do you mind if I work on the piece a little bit?” Returning from the break, Ken proceeded to tear apart and put back together every phrase I had thought was fine. Nothing was overlooked – phrasing, attacks, releases, dynamic contour, subtle tempo shifts. When he finished, the piece sounded truly glorious! And better still, these fine university players had an encounter with musical beauty even with a middle school band piece because a master teacher led them there.
Years later, when I read Peter Boonshaft’s Teaching with Passion, I found the same principle. I think of Peter as one of the preeminent wind band conductors on the planet at this time. He’s also one of the authors of the Sound Innovations instrumental method. In his excellent book Boonshaft suggests that, “in every rehearsal we need to make one beautiful pearl.” In addition to serving as what he calls a “beacon” of perfection, Boonshaft points out that these moments give our students an example of our expectations, and they encourage progress as students realize they can produce something (no matter how small) that is truly beautiful.
I think it’s no accident that two of the most talented music education professionals that I know – Ken Laudermilch and Peter Boonshaft – both employ this technique of leading students to an encounter with excellence in their rehearsals. Whether it’s a university wind ensemble or young saxophone section, doesn’t every one deserve to bump up against something truly beautiful, revel in it, and know that he or she is responsible in part for creating that beauty?
In each meeting with your instrumental students at any level, I’d like to recommend you find something, however small, to give them an “encounter with excellence” to serve as a model, a “beacon of perfection,” for all their music making!