On Patience and Living with Imperfection

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As an arranger, for most of the time you spend with a piece it doesn’t sound any good. When asked how I’m getting on with a chart, I have two regular responses: at an early stage, ‘Just at the wtf do I do with this then? stage – so, making good progress,’ and, later on, ‘It sounds terrible – so, going to plan.’

The first of these stages is where you make the big strategic decisions about how the music is going to go. And often it’s in solving the intractable technical or artistic problems a particular project presents that you make your most unexpected creative decisions. So whilst this bit can be daunting, it doesn’t yet sound bad because you’ve not put enough music together to sound really poor yet.

It’s during the second stage, when you’re working out which exact notes and rhythms people will sing to create the overall shape you have envisaged that it sounds grim. And it persists in not sounding good until really very late in the process. I am sometimes surprised by how sudden the transition from ‘this sounds terrible’ to ‘pretty much done’ is, but in fact this makes sense. Sounding good is the sign that you’ve done your work.

It’s like that thing about how you make a sculpture of a horse: take a hunk of stone and chip away everything that isn’t a horse. When you’ve chipped away everything in the arrangement that doesn’t sound satisfactory, you have a piece of music good enough to share.

And the reason I’m talking about this today is that one of the things being an arranger teaches you is patience when it doesn’t sound any good. It’s normal. It’s inherent in the process. You spend proportionately very little time with a chart once it does sound good, because once there’s nothing left that isn’t good enough, you send it off to the singers for them to learn.

There are useful lessons to learn here in our lives as performers. Performers (except perhaps those who prepare for a single concert and only perform that repertoire once before moving on) typically spend a rather greater proportion of the time with the music once it sounds good enough to share. We live with repertoire over months and years, performing it repeatedly, and so get used to a life in which a lot of what we do sounds satisfactory.

But during the learning process, it’s just like arranging in that you have to live with the music not sounding good enough yet.

My observation is that performers can sometimes be unduly hard on themselves about this in rehearsal. The frowns, the worry, the self-criticism, when they’ve just attempted a passage of music and it didn’t sound like the beautiful result they’re aiming for. Sure, it’s important to notice that it doesn’t yet sound good enough, and to diagnose what needs to improve. But it’s not necessary to mind about it, to feel that it reflects poorly on you individually or collectively. It’s normal. It’s part of the process.

When your musicking doesn’t sound good enough, that’s the music talking to you about what it needs, and therefore what you need to do next. Work on this bit, it says, solve this problem. Our task is to welcome this feedback, and follow the music’s advice. If we can’t hear things that need to improve, we’ve lost our capacity to grow any further.

In any one project, we obviously need to get to a place where we feel it’s good enough, where the results satisfy our musical desires enough to create the wish to share. And when we get there, others will enjoy our sharing in that spirit. Whatever imperfections remain (which there will be; we are all of us works-in-progress), people will perceive and appreciate the love and the care and the generosity of our efforts in preparing that musical gift.

But while we’re living with the not-yet-good-enough, we’ll have a much nicer time of it we accept and embrace the imperfections. Correcting ourselves doesn’t have to be at the expense of forgiving ourselves for the need to be corrected. The capacity to hear where we need to go next to make better music is quality we should celebrate.

I opened your blog looking for comfort, inspiration and distraction after I played back the first draft of a verse and thought, well, that sounds terrible...
I'm delighted to know that I am on the right track; that after my lightbulb moment on a dog walk when I thought I knew how the voices could capture the spirit of the original instruments, this is ok.
Thank you for all your posts - passionate, intelligent, funny and sometimes, like today, perfectly-timed.

So pleased to have hit the spot this time for you.

Also: going for walks is an important part of the creative process. Your dog is being very helpful to take you out regularly :-)

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