Chasing after perfection

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Preparing for that Final Voice Recital

I knew I'd wanted to do it since the beginning of that year. I did. I really did. I really, really did. . . . right?

Yes. I think. Performing should be fun, I tell myself. But now, squinting at my music late at night, I'm not so sure. At this point, I just want it to be perfect. I shift on the piano bench, draw a breath, and let my voice ring out into the echoing, empty chapel.

I'm preparing for my senior voice recital, the pinnacle (hopefully) of all the work I've put into my voice over the past four years: an hour-long concert that includes arias, oratorio, art songs, and one lonely musical theater piece. My recital is in less than a week; and even though I've been preparing for it all year'even though I know these songs backwards and forwards and sideways'I'm freaking out. Most of the performers I know have an unending zeal for perfection; but on this particular night, when I'm at the end of my voice and rope and have been singing for over two hours and why can't I get this right? (I'm tired and need to stop)'my case of perfectionitis seems worse than usual. The problem is that I'm working on "Erbarme dich," a ridiculously complicated Bach aria from Matthew's Passion; and perfection is probably not a realistic goal at this point. Still. I'm stubborn. Maybe the longer I sit at the piano and practice, the more likely perfection is to materialize out of thin air.

At this point in my rehearsing, I remember some pearls of wisdom from my voice teacher: a beautiful soprano named Jurate who I've been studying with for years. One day we were talking about the idea of perfection in the performing arts, and she told me something to the effect of this: "We're chasing after a perfection that doesn't exist, because there is always something we can do better." And in live performances'especially when nerves come into play'perfection proves a very elusive goal; especially if we work ourselves far too hard beforehand. In constantly striving for perfection, we improve beyond our wildest dreams; but there is always a point where our bodies have had enough. The voice can only work so hard for so long; and now, after hours of practice, I am rapidly reaching that point. Remembering Jurate's words, I decide to stop no matter how much I want to keep going: I will be worrying much more, I reason, if I can't sing at all tomorrow because I am so tired.

That Sunday, I'm taking a bow in front of an audience who is giving me a standing ovation. My parents press bouquets of flowers into my hands and a line forms up the center isle'all these people want to offer me their congratulations. Over the next week, also, compliments continue pouring in. My recital, it seems, was an enormous success'though, of course, I am still not happy with it.

In a lesson not long after that recital, Jurate tells me I am being ridiculous. "What you think doesn't matter," she says, "because you'll never be satisfied. You've been taking lessons for a really short time and you're singing really hard music. People at the Met still make mistakes."

Over next few days after that lesson, her words finally start sinking in. I'm a much better singer now that I've heeded her advice. Perhaps perfection is like love: as Carmen sings (and I paraphrase) "You think to hold it, it evades you; you think to evade it, it comes to you." Come performance time, it's much better to just get up and sing than to worry about what everyone in the audience is going to think about you. If you've prepared well, and if you enjoy yourself onstage, the accolades should come without your chasing after them.

To all the performers out there: Be happy. Take care of your body. Work hard, strive towards the ideal in your head, but relax. All the notes, steps, and words are there already, as beautiful and perfect as you could ever wish them. If you believe they are, they are; and if not . . . well. They're not.

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Updated Aug 12, 2017 1:45 PM EDT | More details


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