Hi there! I am taking the week “off” from writing here, for the sake of getting some things sorted out at home. I have some projects and recipes I am looking forward to sharing with you– but this post on the joy of making mistakes just can’t wait. Right now I am re-reading a book that I found enormously helpful about four years ago. It’s called The Art of Possibility, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.
I’ll never forget my surprise when the first horn player of the Boston Philharmonic came to me after a performance of one of the most taxing of Mahler’s symphonies in which he had played a magnificent rendition of the incredibly demanding solo horn part. I’m so sorry,” he said. For a moment I couldn’t imagine what he was talking about. I was struck that his whole appearance seemed dejected and apologetic. Finally I registered that what had caused his deflation was the fact that he had flubbed two admittedly very exposed high notes in the course of one of his big solo passages. Perhaps his mistake might have seemed an irritant to some in a recording heard over and over again, but in the context of an impassioned performance lasting nearly ninety minutes, it was hardly significant. In fact, the all-out ardor of his playing that had led to his mistake had been a major contributor to this performance’s extraordinary vitality.
The level of playing of the average orchestral player is much higher than it used to be in Mahler’s day. So when Mahler wrote difficult passages for particular instruments… he was almost certainly conveying, musically, the sense of vulnerability and risk he saw as an integral part of life. For the orchestra and the conductor, playing Mahler’s symphonies means taking huge risks with ensemble, expression, and technique. We will not convey the sense of the music if we are in perfect technical control, so in a sense a very good player has to try harder in theses passages than someone for whom they would be a strain, technically. Stravinsky, a composer whom we tend to think of as rather objective and “cool,” once turned down a bassoon player because he was too good to render the perilous opening to The Right of Spring. This heart-stopping moment, conveying the first crack in the cold grip of the Russian winter, can only be truly represented if the player has to strain every fiber of his technical resources to accomplish it. A bassoon player for whom it was easy would miss the expressive point. And when told by a violinist that a difficult passage in the violin concerto was virtually unplayable, Stravinsky is supposed to have said, “I don’t want the sound of someone playing this passage, I want the sound of someone trying to play it!”
This attitude is difficult to maintain in our competitive culture where so much attention is given to mistakes and criticism that the voice of the soul is literally interrupted. The risk the music invites us to take becomes a joyous adventure only when we stretch beyond our known capacities, while gladly affirming that we may fail. And if we make a mistake we can mentally raise our arms and say, “How fascinating!” and reroute our attention to the higher purpose at hand.
Does this idea speak to you? I seem to have been born into the world as a perfectionist who is truly afraid of making mistakes. I feel that I missed out on years and years of authentic living and relationships because of this anxiety, and the need to always be “in the right.” I never got the memo that messing up can be part of the beauty in our journeys. That we’re made for that. It was hard for me to let go, to relax inside my being and allow myself to just be human. So much tension. Everything was a moral choice, and there was so little joy in my experience of living.
I am happy to say that I eventually figured out that being human and imperfect is not a crime. And I learned to love living. (Even if I was very late to the party.) It’s still hard sometimes to pursue something that I know I might not do well and could even fail at– I have a very strong work ethic and hate failure. But in the last few years, I have dived into so many new things– some have worked, some have not– and have felt myself becoming more and more free as I face the side of me that is afraid of imperfection, of disappointing other people by being human, or starting something I might not be able to finish.
My hope is to encourage my fellow perfectionists to embrace the idea of struggle being part of the beauty of our lives. To live intensely, whole-heartedly– even at the risk of getting it wrong sometimes. Do something that you scares you– that you might fail at– but could enjoy or learn from in the process.
Have you done anything terrifying-yet-freeing lately? I’d love to hear about it in the comments below!
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