The Perfect is the Enemy of the Good (and the Excellent)

My new CD, “Songs and Dances for Solo Flute,” will be released throughout the US and internationally very soon. This is my seventh CD, and after each one is edited, mastered and sent off into the wide world, there arises a huge sense of relief that my scrutinizing is finally over.

“The Perfect is the Enemy of the Good.” I had to remind myself of this many times throughout the editing process. It’s very easy to get bogged down by the minutiae of what is or isn’t “perfect” at the expense of a beautiful whole; to create in the editing room a piece of music that I think sounds perfect - at least on Tuesday - but ends up feeling somehow off the mark as a whole on Thursday (I’m lookin’ right at you, Herr Carl Phillip.)

I use this quote, “The perfect is the enemy of the good,” in my peak performance workshops and thought I would find out who actually first came up with it. Thanks to the wonders of Wikipedia, I discovered that Voltaire quoted an Italian proverb, “The best is the enemy of the good,” in a poem, and the quote has subsequently morphed over the years into what it is now. (This same Wikipedia entry has a side note about the Pareto principle, which can totally be applied to practicing, and also seems like a great future blog topic.)

While I was in the editing process, I read a terrific article in the Star Tribune by Ross Levin that resonated with me. Levin is a financial advisor who writes regularly for the Star Tribune’s Money section, and his investment advice is peppered with nuggets of wisdom that can be applied to everyday life. His article was about getting financial planning “right,” which could be extrapolated into being perfect or right in anything: “Ego is often a contributing factor to feeling like we have to get things right. We are afraid of making a mistake or trying something that we later need to reverse because we are concerned what others may think or say. But treat these things as experiments with an expectation that you will need to adjust and you may find it easier if you set your ego aside.”

In the arts, as in life, trying to “be right,” trying to match someone else’s definition of right, or trying to be perfect, is a losing proposition. I don’t want to give up on the concept of striving for excellence in my music, of course. It’s a balancing act between effort and relaxation, relying on habits and trying something totally new, tradition and innovation.

A CD recording may seem permanent, with no recourse for adjustment, but really, it’s just one thing in a long line of performances. Looking forward to this season’s concert performances of music off the CD, I’m having fun making interpretation changes while I practice, just playing around and seeing what happens.

For me, performing always seems like a dance between what I am sharing with my audience and my internal state, the energy you shoot out to your audience and the energy you hold inside. When you find that balance, there is no good, excellent or perfect. It just is.

Or, as Levin says, “There is a continuum of ‘rights.’”