The Stranglehold of Piping Perfection

“Perfection is the enemy of the good.” —Voltaire

Modern times have squeezed just about every drop of time we might have to devote to, well, just about anything. Often, we are pressed for time to do everything whether it is one’s job, one’s hobbies, or one’s family life and activities. There is also high pressure to perform well or perfectly at all of it, which is an impossible thing to do. So, I guess it is no surprise that many of us become stressed out by the notion of perfection.

Pipers and drummers are so focussed on perfection it has become a source of mass neurosis. Voltaire’s quote is almost a truism. After all, (and it’s true whether you believe it or not) bagpipe competition is set up to punish imperfection. It is the very nature of the format. I dare say that punishment for imperfection overshadows rewards for the same in a typical piping contest, band or solo. The result? Neurotic attention to detail and oftentimes overanalyzed activity bearing the fruit of paralysis and stagnation. And truly, very little that is good.

How many times has your pipe band rubbed raw your 3 to 5 minute performance on the competition field? How often have you drilled your solo piping material ad nauseum? How much do you really improve though such obsession? Whatever the answer to that, it is important to realize that “perfection” is a myth. We all know what the word perfection means but, there really is no such thing when it comes to creative endeavors. You need to laugh at the very idea as it keeps you from moving forward. Mistakes and/or failure are an inseparable part of any worthwhile effort. Failure counts as much as any success.

Piping is full of details and complicated notions to keep straight. It is easy to doubt yourself and second guess what you know. But you know what is just as good as knowing what you’re doing? Pretending to know what you’re doing and just doing it. Take a moment to think about that and how it relates to the way you approach your own music making. In this idea is the permission to push aside your own prejudices and preconceived notions and move forward.

Doing makes you right. Lots of talk is bandied about in piping about what’s right and wrong. The implication is that somehow someone else will always know the right way to perfection. You can brush aside the “folding-chair judging” and other commentary about your or anyone else’s bagpiping or performance. Being fully engaged in the work to perform and develop your own music and bagpipe playing is what makes you “right.” It is more worthwhile and closer to any idea of “perfect” than any commentary or so-called advice from the Highland peanut gallery.

It’s important to make the distinction, perfection is not the same as development. When you work toward improving yourself as a musician and as a performer or competitor, it is not about striving to be perfect. It is about realizing your potential and working for it, and that work reaps its own rewards. It is the engine that drives musical progress and artistry, and are the things that break the stranglehold that notions of perfection—be they internal or external—can place on us.

  • Great post!  Love your point that “it is easy to doubt yourself and second guess what you know.”  What piper hasn’t had that ridiculous error in competition in a place they’d played perfect 100 times prior?  To follow through and pretend to know what you’re doing, but just doing it – the art of simply doing and letting things flow, versus planned and calculated.  

    I’ve been performing many shows over the past several years in my band, Lucid Druid, and used to be very careful and detailed in putting together our setlist for what tunes we’d play each show.  But over the past 18 months, and most especially this Summer, I’ve learned how to just let go, keep it loose and trust that my piping will take care of itself…

    As pipers we’re trained to memorize every note, every gracing, and perform it “perfectly” each time (with repeats), and maybe you’ll get an occasional 2nd ending with some minor variation. But it is often difficult to break away from that mental framework – yet all too often that is what is required to really just play and let the music flow.  Finding your place of zen while performing or competing is now an ongoing quest in my overall piping regimen. It helps me relax, and allows me to enjoy being in the moment and just playing music.

  • Jfkorber

    I don’t think truer words have ever been said. How often have I asked myself after the umpteenth time of playing set in a tuning park…”am I at a musical performance or an athletic event?”

  • Jfkorber

    I read this again  and wanted to weep. That’s so us!  Could you imagine a group of  amateur violinists going to a Carnegie Hall to see the worlds greatest player and then standing around the pub later and commenting on how flat he or she was or how they didn’t hold a note quite long enough?
    We do it all the time, best players or bands in the world playing and we try to find the the flaws, the things that keep it from being perfect. We barely enjoy it or at least won’t admit to enjoying it. Some of the happiest pipers I’ve ever met aren’t  necessarily brilliant players, but they don’t compete, they just play. 

  • Mark

    Great article. I personally found that the world of smallpipes has opened up a world
    of options and styles that have changed my focus on piping —
    even the GHB. When and how to use grace notes, changing tempos and
    learning rhythms from fiddlers, nuances, etc. has brought more “music”
    into the strictures of my pipe band world. At my Sunday afternoon sessions we have, sometimes, over 20 musicians–> fiddle, accordion, whistle, bouzouki, uillean, etc. You can’t but help picking up new styles and melodic phrasing from everyone. It’s very liberating in contrast to being “in the circle.”

    I also now realize that many of the embellishments simply don’t work when you are tying in rhythms at a fast tempo with other instruments. You really have to strip down some tunes to remove the “GHB” from it and make it a more musical piece. It still amazes me that some
    players are more worried about technique than melody or rhythm. Are we
    in the business of making music or impressing ourselves with technique
    and perfection of notes?

  • Ricardocameron

    The Master says; “Do your work, then step back.  The only path to serenity.”

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