Is Perfection Our Goal? What Defines Mastery?

Mastery. Perfection. Comprehension. How do these words define our knowledge of our instruments? A study piece? A recital piece? A contest or festival piece? Music in general? It’s a matter of hot debate, but one thing is for certain. We must have balance and we should enjoy our practice. After all we are “playing” music!


As teachers and parents, we all want the best for our students. We want them to achieve their highest goals, enjoy their childhood, and be well rounded all at the same time. So how do we balance these goals?

Perhaps we should break down our practice sessions into three sections:


Good technique is important. The same goes for music reading, improvisation, ear-training. The list goes on, and we haven’t even started with music history or social and cultural context! A good teacher will incorporate all of these things over time as their students progress.

Study pieces (often called etudes) are usually short and focus on one or two concepts. This makes them quick to learn and provides a specific direction for the student. It’s not necessary to master every aspect of a study piece, rather it’s important to have a good handle on the main concepts. In fact, recent studies have proven that we learn faster if we study concepts in a slightly different way rather than drilling the same thing over and over.


When we’re in the hot seat, we are all aiming for perfection. But let’s face it: Music is subjective. Highly trained scholars disagree as much as the rest of us on who’s version of “Nessun dorma” is the best (read the comments for a good laugh).


Preparing for a recital, contest, recording or audition is the best time to strive for mastery and approach that line of perfection. But even then, it’s critical to know how to overcome mistakes and keep going. Life isn’t perfect and neither is art!

Fun (the most important!)

When you first learned to ride a bicycle, were you planning to complete in the Tour de France? Unlikely. Maybe you’ve joined a softball league and enjoy getting that extra exercise by having fun with some friends. Or like me, perhaps you’ve recently attended your first paint and sip night?


Playing (or singing) your favorite pieces, perhaps a song on the radio, or that tune that your grandmother always whistled, is such an important part of being a musician. Time and time again music has been proven to have healing powers, both physically and emotionally. In fact, did you know that the Chinese character for medicine contains the character for music?

There’s only one Michael Jordan, one Claude Monet, one Yo-Yo Ma. We can’t all be Picasso, Sondheim or John Lennon. So, let’s relax a little in our lessons and play some pieces just for fun. After all, it’s a great way to work on sight-reading or ear-training. (Shhh! Don’t tell the kids.)

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