There's No "There" There
I’ve always been obsessed with the idea of perfection. That, or as near as I can come to it, is my goal in the practice room: to refine a passage to such a degree that I can find nothing wrong with it. But that standard doesn’t always translate into the concert hall—really, one could argue that it virtually never translates into the concert hall. Things go wrong, or, if not wrong, then not exactly how I’d want. I realized a long time ago that I enjoy the process of preparation more than I enjoy performing, precisely because the end result can never live up to my ideal of what it could be, what it should be. It’s not that I don’t enjoy performing—I do. The energy of live performance can’t be replicated. But still, I’ve always found it difficult to move past the nagging feeling that my playing should have been more committed, more precise, more stylistically perceptive.
But that feeling began to fade, ever so slightly, just over a year ago. As I left a powerfully moving concert, hosted at Curtis in tribute to Bernard Garfield, I found myself more at peace. Some of the anxiety of constantly performing and listening and judging and being judged had just…subsided.
The reason for this wasn’t readily obvious. It was, of course, inspiring to see so many accomplished players gathered to celebrate this man. But what was most meaningful to me was reflecting on Mr. Garfield’s career and what made it so truly, unquestionably great. It wasn’t that the incomparable example of his playing had raised the standard for all bassoonists (although it had), nor was it that he trained so many great musicians (although he did).
What makes Mr. Garfield great is the fact that he has spent his life in pursuit of an ideal, and that he has given everything of himself in that pursuit. As Joyce DiDonato insightfully acknowledged in her remarkable 2014 Juilliard commencement address (embedded below), there’s no “there” there. We never stop growing; we never stop wanting to improve, because none of us are ever as good as the music deserves.
It had finally landed in me that the only perfection that can be attained in music is a lifetime spent in pursuit of perfection. I finally saw, tangibly, that greatness isn’t dependent on flawlessness. In its most important sense, greatness isn’t defined by one performance; it’s built, one performance at a time, and is supported by the work that’s done in between. It exists in its most relevant iteration in the overarching view of a lifetime of effort: Mr. Garfield kept doing the work until he decided it was time to pass the baton. In so doing, he achieved greatness.