Seattle Shakuhachi Study Group

The Wisdom of Perfection

“I really should be better than this by now.”

Not for the first time in my career as a musician, I found myself entertaining this line of thought at the last KSK shakuhachi workshop I attended at Mitsu Minne Shinto shrine in the mountains above Kaki Sensei’s hometown of Chichibu in Saitama Prefecture. I was thinking about a performance opportunity that just been announced at the workshop that would likely include all of the KSK teachers, a number of other professional players and many very advanced students. In considering how it might go if I were to perform at the event, I imagined that I might well (and fairly, I thought) be perceived by some of the other performers as a relatively weak player, especially given my age and the number of years I’ve been playing. As you might expect, this is a line of thought that for me has typically been associated with strong feelings of disappointment in myself and more than a little performance anxiety anytime I played in the presence of advanced shakuhachi players. They, after all, are the ones who can tell good playing from bad.

Mulling all this over on my way to lunch was putting me in a pretty dispirited mood until I inadvertently reminded myself of a perspective that I’ve been sharing with my own students and clients for several years about the unreal and fundamentally harmful quality of this kind of negative self-statement.* At its core, my judgment that “I should be better than this by now” is an incorrect and inaccurate assessment that has no basis in reality whatsoever. The plain fact is that I should not be better than this. Rather, my ability at this moment is a perfect reflection of who I am and the cumulative events of my entire playing history up to now.

Some years ago I had an experience, not the least bit related to music performance, that was something of a low grade disaster at the time and that illustrates this point. I was on my way to pick up my kids at the end of their school day and the “gently used” Nissan I had just bought a few months earlier abruptly… died. I was on the University Bridge in Seattle, driving at the speed limit when the motor simply stopped turning. It didn’t just quit running; it suddenly froze. I was able to coast over to the shoulder and make arrangements to have the car towed to my mechanic’s shop, and found out the next day that the timing belt had broken. That meant that the internal parts of the motor were suddenly no longer synchronized, resulting in the pistons of the motor chewing other parts into little bits. This is not a salvageable problem, so the disaster for me was not only that I would be without a car at a point in my life when I really needed one every day, but I also didn’t have the money for a new motor. This was a set of circumstances that for me was far from perfect to say the least.

And yet, from a very different perspective, the breaking of the timing belt on my car that day was perfect. Timing belts are made from composite materials that wear out over time and ultimately fail. This is the plain reality of what it means to be a timing belt. It’s how nature works in this context, timing belts wear out and break. I found out later that, for that car, the timing belt was supposed to be replaced every 60K miles or so, a fact I was unaware of when I bought the car. The car was well past that mileage when the motor blew up which means that the materials used to manufacture the belt were simply wearing out in a predictable way that naturally follows the laws of physics. In other words, everything was working perfectly and as expected — though the outcome was hugely inconvenient to me.

All events, just as they are, are inherently perfect. But to be able to make sense of this perspective, I have to separate expectations from actual outcomes. I can’t expect to play well if I’m not adequately prepared for example, or if I’m ill on the day of the performance. I can only play as well as I can play that day. Or, all I can ever bring to a performance is my actual ability at that time which, again, is exactly as good as it should be based on my learning and playing history up to that moment (and especially – ahem – how much I practice every day).

Does this mean then that I should always accept each of my performances as being good enough and give up aspiring to be a better player? Not at all I would say; outcomes are important and ultimately I want to be able to play well. Happily, we do have performance standards without which our playing would be rather pointless.

We all work and work to become better players, and rightly so. There is room however to go into a performance with a set of expectations based on what’s real about my playing ability right now, and then pay careful attention to how well I actually play. This is a recipe for a much more enjoyable performance experience.

So here’s the point really: My performance in the moment perfectly reflects my current skill and ability, my history of work and practice to date, my genetic endowment, age and so on. It is a clear indicator of every aspect of who I am that is relevant to this pursuit. I can go into any performance situation with the sure confidence that how I play will perfectly mirror the sum total of my life/practice/training experience up to that moment. And then, if I’m not pleased with the outcome, I can train more, or differently, or both. But there is nothing to fret over and certainly no basis for feeling bad about myself.

*Being caught by one’s own teachings is both humbling and aggravating.