studies in perfection.

When I was 24 years old, I decided one day that I would either be perfect at everything I did or die trying.

And then I hit rock bottom and realized I was looking for all the wrong things, and did some soul searching and realized that to err is human etc. etc.

I totally didn’t.

I just became perfect at everything.

Obviously, I didn’t do that either.

My relationship with perfection has been a long and complex one. Up until that point when I was 24, I was fascinated mostly with the seeds of creation. I had lists of pieces that I was going to compose, all with the first few ideas sketched out, and written ideas about the general way things would unfold. But once I got the gist of things down on paper, once the process of rendering began, I saw how far my ability to execute my creation lagged behind my ability to conceive of it (which I now know to be a common problem among creative types at that age and point of development, (Ira Glass phrases it beautifully here) but which, at that point, I felt was primarily a personal failing). My desire for perfection, which was more easily achieved at school and other areas of my life where the parameters were clearly defined, hindered me from continuing to shepherd my creative thoughts through that process of realization.

It took many years before I began to see the quest for perfection as a long and arduous process that was the end goal of a certain critical amount of practice. And once I saw it as such, perfection suddenly felt attainable. In the same, almost coldly mathematical way that Malcolm Gladwell purported it took 10,000 hours of practice to master an art or sport, I felt that just by putting in the hours of concerted effort, I could achieve similarly great results at anything I wanted to learn.

And, to a certain degree, Gladwell was absolutely right. I spent from age 24 to 28 methodically working towards whatever goal I chose, one hour at a time. There was no bar too high, no subject too far-fetched, or nothing which I felt was beyond my capacity — it was only a matter of hours spent, and level of focus at each step that dictated how fluent I would become.

During that time:

  • I learned to play the violin, starting from barely being able to hold the bow correctly to giving a 45-minute recital program, including a movement of a Mozart concerto two years later.
  • I learned how to trade forex (foreign exchange), checking the indexes and the news every morning, following my chosen currency pairs, reading books and learning various trading strategies online, and watching the irrational curves intently as the financial crisis began to ravage the markets.
  • I studied pure logic, first by myself with books, then in an amazing class at Yale. I also got caught up in studying for the LSAT for awhile, because of it’s particularly interesting logic section.
  • I became a dedicated student of yoga, first with DVDs at home, then going to class in New York, sometimes as often as twice a day when I had time. I found a wonderful teacher who taught me privately one summer, showing me how to align my poses and deepen my practice, and spent a week a few years ago in Guatemala in 2009 on a yoga retreat. I had intended to do a month-long 200-hour teacher training in Rishikesh this summer (though, in the end, it will have to be postponed to a later date).
  • My job at Manhattan School of Music allowed me to develop my dexterity in both theory and aural skills. I conquered my fear of incompetence with counterpoint, and even wrote a book for my students to help make the ancient subject called “species counterpoint” accessible and fun for them. Through hours of practice, both alone and with my students, my ear learned to hear things that had eluded me for most of my undergraduate degree, and then to hear beyond those things into still more abstract and distant constructs.

Of course, I wasn’t perfect at any of these things (I was and still am quite far from being perfect at them), but the very notion that perfection existed and was logically achievable propelled me forward to make the great strides I made during that time. It wasn’t just about the hours I sunk into each endeavor — it was about being ruthlessly critical all the time, about finding the mistakes and fixing them as quickly as possible.

It may sound like drudgery, but those were some of the most revealing and fruitful years of my life up until that point. I grew and learned constantly, and was inspired by each little breakthrough. I pursued perfection doggedly, and that single-minded search fulfilled me beyond measure.

Being in India has forced me to relax my hold on perfection in ways I hadn’t anticipated. The Fulbright orientations had duly warned me of the challenges of daily life here, where “five minutes” could be hours, and  “the next shop over” could mean anything from nextdoor to nonexistent. I actually enjoy this kind of vagueness more than I thought I would, though. Aside from the fact that it usually spurs some sort of adventure, or amounts to a fun anecdote in retrospect, it is an interesting insight into certain aspects of Indian culture that are best understood through example.

But there is another kind of perfection I’ve had to release my death grip on — and this one completely blindsided me.

One morning last November, I was asked to give a radio interview for the upcoming INK Conference on Radio One 94.3. Usually when I talk about my music, it is for a specific target audience (western classical musicians, if not other composers), and my approach is pretty standard in that context. But this interview was for a morning talk radio show that would be broadcast in six major cities around India, to spread the word to a diverse audience about an upcoming conference of innovative ideas.

The interview started out with the regular questions. What was the nature of my work in India? What kind of music did I write? Which musicians inspired me? I rattled off the answers confidently.

But then the RJ asked, “So, you’re a musician — can you sing something for our listeners? Maybe your favorite Bollywood song?”

Immediately my hair stood on end, and I started trying to think of a way to weasel out of the situation. I didn’t know Hindi well enough to sing a Bollywood song. What if I missed words? What if I mispronounced words? Every single person listening would know. Did I even know a Bollywood song well enough to sing it? What if I was off key? I’m not even a singer. And I was definitely not trained extensively in any Indian medium. What if this undermined people’s opinion of my merit as a musician?

In the west, I’m trained to put out work only when it is perfect, or as close as possible to perfection. On closer examination, though, I realized that my definition of perfection amounted to ‘accuracy’. It’s true that there is hardly a note or rhythm out of place on any recording of my music that is available to the public. But as I spend more time studying Indian music, where the idea of accuracy is much more broad and varied than in western music, I see that a number of these recordings, sometimes slapped together as a demo for a competition or thrown onto a concert at the last minute, lack something that is very important in Indian music: the ability to communicate.

I think there is a simple reason for this difference in values. To achieve accuracy singing an average Hindustani bandish is much less difficult than to achieve accuracy while playing, say, a Beethoven Piano Sonata. Accuracy in the bandish comes very early in the process (perhaps in an hour or so), as the plain, unadorned bandish is about four lines of unaccompanied melody — so there is no prestige in accuracy alone. But with the Beethoven Sonata, simply executing what is written in the score is often so taxing that most performances are content to make accuracy their end goal. And consequently, the difficulty associated with achieving that accuracy creates a strange fascination among students of western classical music with playing pieces that are increasingly technically difficult, instead of pieces that are musically fascinating, or heartbreakingly beautiful.

Indian classical music is also incredibly difficult, to be sure. But accuracy is only the very beginning of mastery. True mastery is not about following instructions as much as finding the most innovative ways to push right up against the boundaries of the form through improvisation. And that very impetus to be innovative comes from the desire to communicate with and please your audience. As beautifully rendered as your phrases may be, they are only complete with the approval and enjoyment of those who listen – a feature that is given much less weight in western music.

In Indian music, a whole different kind of perfection is present – the perfection of communication. The most concentrated example of this trait I can think of in the west is in standup comedy. There is a live exchange between the comedian and the audience, and a good comedian knows how to work with this relationship in a way that feels very natural, that never drops a beat, and that delivers a perfectly manicured performance drawing out genuine laughter from end to end. And so it is in Indian music – at the best concerts, the energy of communication is always palpable, and perfection is achieved when the artist uses their vast knowledge and expertise to anticipate the desires of their audience, and fulfill those desires as elegantly as possible.

In the seconds after the RJ asked me to sing, I realized I didn’t have a way out – it was a simple request that would have been impossible to refuse. So I tried to push the thoughts of imperfection out of my head. Whatever came out of my mouth would not be fully accurate – that was certain. But I firmly forced new thoughts into my mind: Reena, they just want you to have fun, and sing a song that people will relate to. That’s the whole point. Just show the listeners how much you enjoy the music that they love. That’s all.

I began to sing the melody of the classic old film song Kabhi Kabhi, apprehensively, note by note, doing my best, and trying not to judge what might have been a little out of tune or with the wrong gamaks (ornaments). And as the RJs looked on, smiling as they watched an Indian girl with an American accent trying earnestly to sing a bollywood song, I actually started to see what they saw, and enjoy myself a little, too.

I began to realize that the picture they wanted to paint of me was perhaps more true than the picture I wanted to paint of myself. Yes, I am a musician that holds myself to exacting standards. But that is hardly my defining feature. I’m also a person who might be fun to talk to at a conference, who is really excited about the work I do, and eager to share it with those around me. And in the larger scheme of things, that is really what I want to project to the people I meet.

One of the great lessons I’ve learned from yoga is the need for balance between elements. In yoga, one of the most basic balances exists between strength and flexibility. This far my pursuit of perfection had been heavily weighted on the strength side. Perfection is sometimes about dogged pursuit of knowledge, but other times about learning to be agile and adaptable with that knowledge. I see the former as my continuing obligation to better myself, and the latter as my way to use what I’ve learned to relate to others.

I may not be a perfect violinist, but it still felt magical to render the violin obbligato on Strauss’s Morgen for an audience of people I had never met the German Embassy last fall. I may not be a perfect accompanist, but it was great fun to coach singers for the Mozart production in Delhi last January. I may not be a perfect speaker of Hindi, but it’s pretty exhilarating to bargain hundreds of rupees off clothes in the market.

It’s amazing how much can be achieved through the context of interaction. That base ability gives you the opportunity to interact, and that interaction then augments your ability. From rigid perfection comes fluid adaptability, comfort in spontaneity, eager anticipation of the unknown. And from that eager anticipation forms a desire to meet new people and exchange ideas with them. And so the marvelous cycle continues.

I still love that single-minded pursuit of perfection, but I am finding a new perfection in equilibrium.

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4 Responses to studies in perfection.

  1. thewiserabbit says:

    Wonderful and inspiring blog!

  2. Stephanie says:

    Reena, I just loved this! I can definitely relate to changes in identity with always trying to be prepared with a finished, polished product to share. This in part came from a similar situation, too: the teachers in the staff room asked me to sing! Everyone sings in India… and it really doesn’t matter if you botch it as long as your heart is good. :-)

    • reenainindia says:

      Stephanie, you are so right about everyone singing in India… I think that’s one of the reasons I love it here – what a joy, as a musician, to be in a culture where everyone sings :)

  3. Pingback: welcome! | reena|in|india

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