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The Paradox of Playing It Perfect: Wrong Goal! By Murphy Henry

Posted by caseyhenry on Monday, January 27, 2014

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Once again the bugaboo of "playing it perfect" has reared its ugly head. Actually, this happens with shocking regularity among my adult students. (Kids don't give a damn. Anything they play delights them, mistakes notwithstanding. Lovely word, "notwithstanding"! So Dickens!) Therefore, let's take a look at this whole idea of "playing it perfect." Because, frankly, my dear, it's quite the paradox.

Obviously, when you are learning a new song you want to get the notes right. Whether you are learning from a Murphy Method DVD or, gods forbid, from tab you want to learn the song correctly--right notes, right timing. Then, after you've got the notes in your head, when you are in the process of attaining muscle memory by slow, repetitive playing, you still want to try to play it correctly. If you find yourself making the same large mistake every time, you need to go back and correct that mistake. You don't want to ingrain wrong notes or wrong timing in your head. 

So here's what we've got so far:

Learn the notes right to begin with.

Practice the song slowly--and correctly--many times to get it in your hands.

In both these phases it's important to try to play it perfect. But then what?

Then we flip playing it perfect out on its ear because that idea is no longer useful. Why? Because it ain't gonna happen. No, I'm serious. It is NOT GOING TO HAPPEN. "Playing it perfect" is the wrong goal when  it comes to banjo--it will actually impede your progress.  Mistakes are an integral part of the banjo-playing experience. You might as well learn to accept them, embrace them, and, in the long run, turn them into friends, which is to say, new licks. (But that's another story!)

So, if playing it perfect is not important, then what is? Playing through your mistakes. Not stopping. Staying in time.

Here's the paradox: The "perfection" we strive for in banjo playing doesn't mean "no mistakes." It means playing through the song without stopping. It means playing through the mistakes that you will inevitably make. It means staying in time. It means making music with other players--who will also be making mistakes. Mistakes don't matter. Earl made mistakes. Bill Monroe made mistakes. Bluegrass music includes mistakes.

I believe this idea of perfection in banjo playing is fueled by today's mistake-free digital music. Anybody that has been in a modern recording studio knows that wrong notes, out-of-tune vocals, and timing errors are all fixed with computers. That's why digital music sounds "perfect." To my ears, it is perfect. However, I'm sure that  better ears than mine still hear mistakes.

It is of critical importance that you learn to play through your mistakes. At lessons, I aid and abet by playing guitar. New students hate this part! They hate it when their pull-offs aren't clean. (Me:"Keep going!") They hate it when their hand muffles the first string. (Me: "Keep going!") They hate it when they forget part of a song. (Me: "Keep going!") (Student, afterward: "But I could play it perfectly at home!" Me: "I'm sure you could!")

And here's another part of the paradox: letting go of playing it perfect does not mean being satisfied with messy, sloppy playing. As we all do, you will constantly work to minimize mistakes, which, in my book, is a far, far different thing than trying to play it perfect. Working to minimize mistakes gives you some breathing room. It's a flexible, attainable goal. Trying to play it perfect puts a noose around your neck, hinders your playing, and makes you feel bad because you will always be falling short. 

And the trick to all this--especially for adults--is to enjoy your playing while you are constantly working to minimize mistakes. ("Constant vigilance!" as Mad-Eye Moody said.) Everybody is making mistakes all the time. It doesn't matter. Let go of the trees! See the forest!

On a personal note: My students think I never make mistakes in my playing, but they couldn't be more wrong. I make mistakes all the time, but since I can keep a straight face, they don't notice. Also I can usually turn a "mistake" into a passably-pleasing lick. It might not have been what I meant to play, but it works. It's a great trick, a useful skill, and I've learned to be okay with it.

On occasion, "mistakes" sound better than what you intended to play. I'll never forget my daughter Casey playing her brand-new tune, Real Women Drive Trucks, on stage at a bluegrass camp. The tune features the use of the D-tuners on the second and third strings. (Note to newbies: This means Casey actually de-tunes and re-tunes the banjo during the song, using those "magic" tuners.) Well, perhaps it was a case of nerves, but in the middle of the song, when Casey went to tune the third string back up, she missed the tuner! However, being the pro that she is, she didn't bat an eyelash, but simply grabbed the tuner a second later and brought the string up to pitch. I was sitting by awesome banjo player Tom Adams and, while he recognized what had happened as a mistake, he said, "Cool! She should keep that in the song." So she did! (You can hear this "mistake" turned "cool lick" on her CD, Real Women Drive Trucks. Down-loadable. iTunes. 99 cents! [Oh, how I miss the old "cent" mark!]

If you are a perfectionist by nature, I know it's hard to "grok" (Heinlein for "understand completely") that perfection is not a useful goal here. But as I tell my perfectionist students, in the world of bluegrass, you get the gold star for playing it all the way through, mistakes and all. 

24 comments on “The Paradox of Playing It Perfect: Wrong Goal! By Murphy Henry”

buckholler Says:
Monday, January 27, 2014 @11:12:40 AM

Great advise..

pickn5 Says:
Tuesday, January 28, 2014 @6:26:10 AM

I feel better already! Thanks for the insight.

jonah4832 Says:
Tuesday, January 28, 2014 @7:55:50 AM

So then, I am doing it right, thanks.

a g cole Says:
Tuesday, January 28, 2014 @12:12:56 PM

Once again Murphy, AMEN. "PERFECT" music to me sounds artificial. It sounds as if it is being played by a robot (which is actually the case)..To me, a few mistakes along the way gives the music the human quality I prefer. Thank you for posting this, Casey.

Cohumulone Says:
Friday, January 31, 2014 @2:21:45 PM

Great post, Casey. This is a hard concept for adults to wrap their heads around. I posted something similar to this in my most recent blog too. As a newbie, I think it's especially important to be able to move on with the song when playing with others, if at no other time.

andyrubin Says:
Monday, February 3, 2014 @10:06:07 AM

I love this post. Perfection would be great, but not at the expense of the lilt and feel of a tune.

stringbeaner Says:
Monday, February 3, 2014 @2:46:34 PM

Great blog! Is there some way to post that where everyone, teachers and students could see it and take it to heart? If that thought could be in every player's head somewhere, a lot fewer students would not drop out of learning, a lot of teachers would be more successful and a lot of players would have a whole lot more fun!

Dave1climber Says:
Monday, February 3, 2014 @6:33:37 PM

I feel much better now. If I can just keep this in mind when playing.
Thanks Casey


Ed Emrich Says:
Monday, February 3, 2014 @7:11:26 PM

I really enjoyed the splash of reality. As a novice player
I listen to Scruggs and others and marvel at their perfection . Now I can relax and go for the tune not the note. Thanks

peter_scheffler Says:
Monday, February 3, 2014 @10:17:23 PM

Well said, but I still find it so hard to follow! I think the worst consequence of feeling that I need to be perfect is that it discourages me from playing with others. I keep thinking I'm not good enough--which of course paradoxically means I don't get nearly as good as I could be, and more importantly I don't have nearly as much fun. A group of us are learning together from the Murphy Method DVDs, and I'll copy the post for everyone else. Thanks!

Boringperson Says:
Tuesday, February 4, 2014 @1:30:18 AM

This makes me feel so much better! I've always felt it was better to blast through and hope for the best. If I wasn't going to make mistakes I'd never have made anything. Thanks Casey for this encouragement.
Much love, Mark McCluney

mjpgkessels Says:
Tuesday, February 4, 2014 @2:44:17 AM

Thanks Casey for making the imperfect perfect!
Where is my banjo!!

paulrobertwagner Says:
Tuesday, February 4, 2014 @6:30:01 AM

Thanks, Casey. Perhaps Murphy could join us on the Hangout, too -- please put in a good word for us! ;-)

Tam_Zeb Says:
Tuesday, February 4, 2014 @6:40:34 AM

I play all my mistakes perfectly. It's those lapses in concentration and stage fright gremlin that I can't seem to shake off.

sethlael Says:
Tuesday, February 4, 2014 @8:51:34 AM

I think this post could have gone farther on what non perfect playing is acceptable. You mention play in time but what if my notes are slightly ahead or behind? And off pitch tuning, I can see how it might work, but what about a completely out of key(half step) note? Going father what about completely different velocity notes in a run that makes the run lose its oomph?
The greats don't get great by accepting their playing at a mediocre level as it seams the poster implies. I think imperfection is a great thing and brings soul and character to a performance but highly noticeable mistakes should have a line drawn. Maybe it is to much of opinion to decide where that line is? But that would be a great addition to this post.

kenfinkel Says:
Tuesday, February 4, 2014 @10:29:06 AM

In any pursuit, banjo, golf, or just name your passion - the trick is not how good you are on your best day, but how good you are at your worst - nervous, unsure, indecisive. The key is NOT raising the level of your playing at its best, but raising the level at which you never play below. Think about it.

MikeInCali Says:
Tuesday, February 4, 2014 @1:41:30 PM

sethlael, I believe the nature of mistakes she's talking about are incidents that span a short period of time. If you are out of tune or forget to capo up for a fiddle tune (yep I did that) then that will effect an entire tune. But most mistakes are a missed note here, flubbed note there. They are split seconds in time. Two measures later if you are still thinking about that note then you're the only one in the room that is. The audience moves on with the song. As long as you have too.
I record every practice with my band. Next day I listen back, cringe, and try to improve those flubs. It's comforting to know the pros make mistakes too.

iluvearl Says:
Tuesday, February 4, 2014 @4:30:21 PM

Most of my mistakes are because somebody tabbed it out wrong!! (lol Murphy!)

articelk Says:
Wednesday, February 5, 2014 @2:07:42 AM

Thanks Casey ... my mistakes are frequent at my level of learning, but I love playing my banjo - hell, I've even found some of my mistakes to my liking! Staying in correct time is my biggest issue - it becomes a glaring mistake that I never like!

gclaunch Says:
Wednesday, February 5, 2014 @12:33:31 PM

I was at a jam a couple of weeks ago and kicked off a tune with a break, not too bad a solid B+, later in the tune I got the nod for another break, and man, did I screw up!...missing notes, wrong notes, missing strings with my fingers, arrgh...but I didn't quit, and when the tune was over, I was apoplectic about the disaster I had caused and apologized to the group....they all laughed, said, yeah, it was bad, but you kept time, finished the break when you were supposed to and we made it through the song without stopping. It was a real "worst case" scenario, but I made it. Key factor involved is to keep going and not stop. I appreciate your article and it's encouragement, accept the fact that I will make mistakes, yet I keep trying. Thanks............
(By the way, never looked back, played all evening and had a blast!)

Murphy Henry Says:
Thursday, February 6, 2014 @10:32:34 AM

Okay, here's a story about one of my millions of mistakes. Casey and Red and Chris and I were all picking at the Station Inn for some event. Just a jam. I was sitting beside the great banjo player Richard Bailey. (And, frankly, feeling just a tad nervous about that....) So Casey was fixing to sing the song This Weary Heart You Stole Away. In D. Well, we used to play that song on stage, but it had been a while. A long while. So, I tried to kick it off in open D, which, frankly, is tricky. You don't have punchy pickup notes. I muffed it. Bad. To quote the comment from gclaunch, "missing notes, wrong notes, missing strings with my fingers." It was so bad that I actually stopped and said, "Let me play that again." To which Richard Bailey immediately replied, in the driest tone possible, "I'd like to hear you play THAT again!" Bada bing! I almost fell out of my chair laughing. So, mistakes happen. To all of us. We just laugh and go on! (I did better on my second try!)

Dan Sparkman Says:
Wednesday, February 26, 2014 @2:57:50 AM

Always play through mistakes and just keep on going! They will happen.

Advice from a couple of fellers who knew what they were talking about: "...-the late Waylon Jennings used to say of his recordings, 'If you get it perfect, nobody's going to like it.' I believe Waylon knew what he was talking about. Timing in a band situation is about "feel" and musical interaction." --Earl Scruggs," Earl Scruggs and the Five String Banjo", (revised edition); Hal Leonard; Milwaukee, WS, 2005; p. 37.

Banjo Bob Anderson Says:
Monday, March 3, 2014 @10:50:46 AM

There are lots of master players, far fewer master teachers. I love mastery in any form. Keep on being you, Sensei.
Bob Anderson

JohnWaters Says:
Monday, May 26, 2014 @10:38:36 AM

I love this advice. Something I heard a lot after I started was - "Play the song as slow as necessary to not make any mistakes. Then after you can play it 10 times in a row without mistakes, slightly increase the speed." I understand the intent of that message, but it hindered me for a good 6 months. There was NO speed at which I could play it twice without mistakes. Moreover, I was playing it so slow, it sounded nothing like the tune I was learning. Eventually, I decided to play the song as fast as I could without repeating the SAME mistake. If I was repeating a mistake, I worked on that section. This second approach helped me to progress much faster and also to learn to play through an expected mistake.

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