Updated: Dec 17, 2019
I’d like to introduce you to a concept that I’ve been munching on for a while, which I’ve named the #etudeproject. After lots of stalling (mostly getting over my ego, and you’ll understand why in a bit), I’ve decided it’s high time to start a conversation about continual artistic improvement in the midst of a busy career and, as the title suggests, embracing imperfection.
This conversation centers around a video project where you’ll see all my imperfections as I work on a new piece every week. Through the videos, I hope to show how embracing imperfection in some areas can actually help you to make progress on a larger scale -- and discover more quickly what to work on next.
Why would something like this be needed? If you’re a professional (or a seasoned amateur), you’ll likely have already spent years in the practice room, and you probably have a solid routine of warm-ups and technique builders that have developed over those many years. The problem is that sometimes life or career shifts can necessitate a change in routine. We want to be able to adapt -- not fall victim to an abrupt change in circumstance, like a new or unpleasant job, a baby, big move, or health issue. I don’t know about you, but often when those things come (which they do because I’m human), my original habits suffer because they no longer fit with the new normal… and then I start to lose my bearings.
I’d like to give you a personal example to drive the point home.
Here’s my reality.
I'm a professional violinist, wife, and mom of two young girls.
In the past ten years, I’ve given birth twice (and recovered, praise the Lord!). I ate Costco pizza weekly throughout my first pregnancy. Didn’t touch it in the second.
I founded the Alameda String Academy, a successful strings and chamber music-focused school, just months after the birth of our second daughter (which till June of 2019 had a team of faculty & staff… more on that another time...).
I teach a full studio of private students, coach chamber music, conduct, and judge competitions.
I’ve kept up my own performance schedule and produced many, many, [breath] many concerts and outreach events for our faculty and the school.
I am heavily involved in my daughters’ school and we are committed members of a church family here in the bay.
My husband owns his own business and travels a fair amount, so my schedule flexes when he’s gone.
Our parents live on three continents, so we all travel a fair amount to keep up with family.
I could go on… but I think you get the picture.
To be perfectly transparent, many of these things have introduced massive change in my work/life flow. I have had to reinvent myself and the wheel (especially regarding practicing) many times.
I think you could probably make a similar list! There are extraordinary and mundane things in all of our lives and careers -- all of which shape our lives and either make room for, or “take room” from, existing habits and routines.
I’m not sure if anyone ever spoke to me during my years of training about how to adapt to these changes. I have always operated by adding. I add things to my plate without taking things off. It’s my inner overachiever/perfectionist/optimist/narcissist/women’s rights advocate/people pleaser, etc. I try to do ALL. THE. THINGS. But, as I’ve discovered the hard way, it’s very hard to do all those things -- and do them well. The quantity of work is large, but the quality is sub-par.
This leads me back to playing and practicing.
I have been so thankful for the years of conservatory training, which have equipped me with the muscle memory, focus and grit needed to get through the early years of child-rearing and starting a business, when working days were most fragmented and unpredictable. There have been many times when I have had ONE chance to look at something before a concert. If something really needed to be practiced, then I could prioritize that section, but for the most part, I had to let the rest go, and trust my fingers.
It didn’t always feel that great. To be honest, it never did. For much of the time, I felt like I would surely be found out as a fraud, not having practiced as much as I wanted (or knew my colleagues were practicing). I knew I was at best treading water and wanted to change. And now that both kids are in school, I have more time for structured work -- but my playing has still been hitting a wall.
The problem is, my conservatory-trained habits of hours of scale and technique practice are no longer a realistic answer to the question of how to improve or maintain skills. I simply don’t have the kind of time I had as a student, when I could spend hours ad nauseam on scales, etudes, or even a single passage of a concerto. These days, when balancing the business part of my music with, performances, teaching, parenting, etc. etc. etc, I fight to carve out my minimum of a consistent hour every day. It would be too much to devote that whole hour to just one kind of practice.
So -- with one hour, how can I improve? How can I move from treading water to being at the top of my game, while embracing imperfection? Is it possible to surpass my peak condition -- and even, perhaps, become a leader in my field?
That’s the crux of what I’m exploring with this etude project. I'm working on making the most of my limited time to pursue continual artistic development.
To that end, the #etudeproject has become one of my favorite experiments. It is an accelerated and purposeful study of efficient practice through etudes. It is meant to take up just part of that “minimum hour” goal that I have for daily practice. (Some of that time is for warm-ups and other repertoire.)
I chose etudes for the following reasons.
They are short and sweet, with a technical focus that challenges me to practice with purpose and accountability to a clear and specific goal.
I can sight-read something new frequently, which keeps my ear, short-term memory and my reading sharp.
My childhood teacher, Bill Hunt, passed much of his music library to me when he retired (AMAZING!!!) and I have a lot of etude books to read through. I could do this every week for several years and not run out of music... Sounds like I have my practice sessions all planned out for a while. :)
These are the rules for my #etudeproject.
I’ll spend around five practice sessions of approximately 20 minutes each to take an etude from new to “polished”. I’ll make a daily plan, take it as far as I can, and then record it an move on!
Each video will have three main parts:
First stab. Literally sight-read the etude. You'll see just a short excerpt in the video or you might die a slow death by watching me struggle.
Practice focus. I’ll share excerpts of a part that I have to work on in the middle of the process. What makes this etude tricky and how do I work on it?
Final play-through. This is the scary part. It's not going to be perfect after 5 days!! But it will be pretty good, and I will have learned a lot about what works well in my playing and what still needs development.
I won’t spend a ton of time editing these videos. Though I want them to be fun and informative, the purpose is more to expose the process: working purposefully and being okay with momentary imperfections, for the sake of the larger goal.
The #etudeproject is:
an opportunity to hone in on a few very specific goals each week, and recognize progress in those areas. By recognizing progress in my goals, I embrace imperfection in other areas -- knowing that it is a means to an end and not the end itself!
a structured way to track my technical readiness for any repertoire I’m preparing. If I work on it here, it will be ready for quick application in my other music.
something for me to practice, regardless of whether or not I have concerts on the immediate horizon. I won’t fall off the bandwagon, or have to cram for a performance. Rather, I’ll be ready for whatever opportunities come, with less stress and upheaval to my family’s busy schedule. If I need time off, then I’ll know right where I am because I’ve been tracking my skills.
The #etudeproject is NOT:
a showcase of my ability to achieve artistic perfection -- that’s what professional recordings are for! I’ve had to remind myself of this, as several colleagues have called this a “risky” or “gutsy” move, because I’m not showing necessarily polished work. Will there be professional repercussions for this move? Will I suddenly stop being asked to perform for concerts? I hope not, but I guess we’ll see.
My hope is that by being willing to #embracethemiddle of the journey, not just the finished product, I can help others to find stability, joy and contentment in the working process, as well as the finished product for which we all strive.
I’d love to hear how others structure their working process to allow balanced time for all areas of career and family. And if you’d like to join me in the #etudeproject, please comment below and tag me in your posts! (@erica.w.ward on Facebook / Instagram)
Enjoy my first video… more to come!