As a break from the technical side of cello playing (check out my previous blog, Intonation and Cello Playing) and as the year 2012 comes to a somewhat resolved and, indeed hasty, close, there seems no more appropriate time than now to reflect briefly on the learning process and what it means to improve. If there is one thing that musicians, and artists for that matter, tend to concern themselves with each and every day it is this: Progress. But what does it mean to make progress? How can we be assured that we are consistently moving forward and not obliviously spinning our wheels, or worse yet, back-pedaling? And is progress even what we’re after? These are questions that I have spent quite a bit of time with, from various perspectives, and while I can’t really say that my thoughts are to be treated with any great deal of authority, perspective is often just as useful, if not at least as a temporary substitute for authority itself. The process of learning and improving in cello playing is often just as much cerebral as it is technical, if not more.

The Process of Learning and Improving in Cello Playing

Our deep interest in the concept of progress is, in my mind, very closely tied to two similar (yet seemingly distant) concepts: perfection and failure. If there was ever a first philosophical “chicken-or-the-egg” question that existed, this may be it. And indeed, how would you answer when asked which came first: perfection or failure? While it is fairly obvious that one cannot exist without the other, and while the overwhelming majority of people might answer that perfection couldn’t have existed without an adequate number of failures, I still can’t help but get caught up in the dizzying spin of questions that this sends me into. Does the idea of perfection exist to quantify the need for failure? Is failure in fact healthier for us than achieving perfection? How you answer the original question might say quite a bit about what it is that you’re after: whether you value perfection more than recognizing the need for failure, or vice versa. However it turns out, recognizing that progress sits comfortably between failure and perfection might be our biggest acknowledgment yet, because this invariably leads us through a process that can be repeated, over and over again (which is where the learning happens). I don’t know how many times I’ve put myself in a straight-jacket trying to get something perfect, when in fact the impractical and unnecessary demands that I was putting on myself were the very things that caused me to lose focus and make mistakes! It’s a vicious cycle, and while I do acknowledge the “good-intentions” side of striving for perfection, we still need to be good to ourselves. Embracing mistakes as a part of the process has helped me to move towards whatever it is I’m trying to achieve (still haven’t figured that out yet, but that’s for another blog). Perfection and failure seem to always keep me in a healthy “limbo” state; I know that if I get too close to one or the other, I’ll have to start making some real changes.