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Practice makes Perfect

by Arthur Butterworth

This old saying was once instilled into children learning a musical instrument, playing a game, studying this or that. On the face of things it seems to be undeniable; the more you do a thing, the more familiar one becomes with all that it demands of one’s ability to do it to absolute perfection.
 
Years ago there was a popular television programme which featured members of the public causing laughter and amusement when their attempts to do something they were unfamiliar with resulted in such ludicrous results when compared with the experts who had demonstrated how something could be done with a quick sleight of hand: making a piece of pottery, icing a cake, painting a picture or whatever.
 
Learning a musical instrument is certainly a technique where the notion of ‘practice makes perfect’ is applicable. Not just mastering the specific technique of one’s chosen instrument - like learning to drive a car - but in constantly practising and thus becoming thoroughly familiar with a particular piece of music - like the driver who daily drives along the same familiar road, knowing every bend, conscious of every potential hazard.
 
Concert artists are well aware of this. Time and time again they go over the concertos they have already mastered; for to miss a day’s practice their technique - at least to themselves - loses its absolute perfection. To them, to miss a week’s regular practice becomes evident to their listeners as well. So indeed ‘practice makes (and keeps) perfect’.
 
But can this sometimes be overdone?
 
The continental tradition - especially in Germany - has always seemed to insist on lots and lots of rehearsal for a concert, so that guest conductors from abroad have generally been not only surprised but often disconcerted by the British way of scheduling relatively little rehearsal for a performance, relying instead on the fine sight-reading capability of British orchestral players. It has to be admitted that the insistence on plenty of rehearsal does ensure absolutely safety in the eventual performance: everyone is as familiar as possible with the work being presented to the listener.
 
Such perfection was remarked on - so we are told - in the earlier part of last century when, for example, the Berlin Philharmonic came to Britain and demonstrated a precision that British orchestras at that time seemed unable to match.
 
Every conductor, every individual performer, is different in his or her attitude to rehearsing or learning a new work; some need a considerable time to come to terms with what a new works needs, while others appear to have quite a staggering ability to learn, or even perform almost at sight, something new and unfamiliar.
 
On the face of it then, it would appear that the old saying is true: the more familiar one is with what it entails, the more perfection is likely to be achieved.
 
Perfection, is not easy to define; how in musical performance might it be sensed?
 
Apart from the nature of the music itself, which is concerned with the way the composer has designed it, unlike a painting which is complete once the artist has applied the final brush-stroke, a musical work requires further ’interpretation’ by the performer. In this inevitably lies a quality of perfection of lack of it which naturally can vary enormously.
 
Maybe it is a characteristic of the times in which we live, and for all we know, probably something of the same characterised earlier generations’ way of regarding things by their technical excellence. We tend to be over-awed by the seemingly assured technical perfection of ever younger and younger performers. How is this achieved one wonders?
 
For all this exemplary wizardry there is often something lacking. This is also sometimes the case with much older and very experienced concert artists, not least conductors.
 
Technical excellence has been achieved by dint of much practice; practice that - maybe just sometimes - has gone too far?
 
Rather like the brass name plate on the old fashioned doctor’s surgery, which the housemaid was required to polish rigorously every morning without fail, so that perfection should be ever maintained, eventually the letters on the brass plate were themselves ultimately rubbed away to illegibility. So the musical performance has been so honed to an indefinable perfection that all sense of spontaneity has been erased in the process.
 
Because of the long tradition - largely on account of economic necessity - of only the minimum of rehearsal, British conductors have generally had to be able to manage with the situation. Not all of course, some of our most distinguished conductors have insisted on lots of rehearsal, considering this essential to achieve the perfection they aspired to. However, others have tended to take a broader view, realising that - especially with familiar works in the repertoire - shall we say Brahms, Schubert, Beethoven, and many other often-played classics - too much rehearsal does not achieve an elusive perfection but mere tedium and ultimately a lack-lustre performance. Players often rise to the challenge of a spontaneity of performance, which might even be a little dangerous to their peace of mind, but can be invigorating.
 
So while it is undeniable that practice makes perfect, perfection in the widest sense can sometimes be a bore; it is just coldly precise so that a sense of adventure and sparkling spontaneity is lost. There are many parallels with other human experiences, the way we regard musical performance reflects them.
 
Arthur Butterworth
May 2009

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