Yesterday, after my fourth attempt at hacking my way through Hamilton’s It’s Quiet Uptown, I had an epiphany. A lightening bolt moment that was as profound as it was sudden. My revelation?
I’m bad at piano.
And perhaps more important, I have zero desire to be good. I just like playing.
If you think I am just being modest, I assure you I am not. I have both the qualitative and quantitative assessments skills to know what bad is and I am bad. Don’t believe me, my wife, children, and even my Golden Retriever would be happy to validate my conclusion.
Certainly my musical training, experience, and knowledge provide me with both the ability and pathways to improve, but I don’t want to. I am happy in my mediocrity. I wallow in wrong notes and bad singing the way a pig wallows in mud, happy as can be and oblivious to the thoughts of others.
Either way, what’s so bad about being bad? It used to be okay to not be okay. Not anymore. Doing something for fun just isn’t good enough anymore.
If you’re a jogger, it’s not enough to trot around the block, you need to post a personal best in a half-marathon. If you’re a skier, you can’t be just satisfied with blue runs, you want to excel on black diamonds. How can you enjoy your Saturday morning stretch when you’re missing out on acro-yoga? Why shoot for par when a birdie or eagle will get you closer to your personal best? After all, if you’re not aiming for the top, you’re standing at the bottom. Right?\
Not necessarily so.
There is something noble about the pursuit of excellence. There is much to be learned and gained from pushing oneself outside of the comfort zone. Setting a goal that’s just out of reach and striving for it has been the basis of super human athletic, academic, and musical achievements.
The question I am asking is when is it okay to not pursue excellence and simply do something because we enjoy it? In short, when is it good to be bad? This question has relevances in both our personal and professional lives. For instance:
Can we enjoy watching drum corps and winter guards without trying to match them?
Can we attend conferences and performances and walk away appreciating them without feeling pressured to replicate them?
Can we attend an instructional clinic without feeling dejected that we are not the teacher they are?
Can we see pre and post work hours as opportunities for for something other than extended rehearsals?
Can we compete as an opportunity to showcase our skills and not as a function of winning?
In short, can we call ourselves successful teachers if our students are not quantifiably successful? Has the “pursuit of excellence” corrupted our profession and our students’ musical experiences?
I think not.
But it has polarized the space between the joy of creation and the discipline of achievement.
I believe that within every educational setting there can be a place for a Julliard-bound student AND a casual music maker. There can be an ensemble that meets the needs of a savant AND and one that meets the needs of the slacker. There can be a way to showcase virtuosity as well as celebrate mediocrity. The demands of excellence are not at war with the creative process. They are mutually beneficial and must coexist simultaneously so as to provide opportunities for all music making and music makers.
The reasons FOR making music are as wide and as varied as the level we make music at. The tolerance and acceptance of our musical skills allows for MORE music, from MORE people, equating to MORE joy in the world.
As a pianist, Lang Lang’s brilliance is no threat to me and my brilliance is no threat to him. The way we play the instrument may be very different, but the joy we receive from doing it is likely very similar.
Have a great week!
p.s. In my defense, I might be better if Lin Manual Miranda didn’t love the key’s of B and E!