As a young musician, I held two opposing views on music. One set of thoughts was “no music is ever perfect,” and “there will always be room to improve it.” These thoughts were in direct opposition to my driving force which was “It Must Be Perfect!”
The pursuit of perfection was always part of my world as a young musician. The pieces I was working on needed to be played correctly with all the right rhythms and all the right notes, then played with style and musical taste. I’ve spent countless hours practicing only a couple of bars of music attempting to get them ‘perfect.’
The fact remains that no matter how hard I practice, and how much effort I put in, I could always find something that could be a little bit better still.
When I left music to ‘get a regular job,’ I held the attitude that if I couldn’t put in six to eight hours a day, why should I bother playing at all? In reality, all this attitude did was keep me safe – Nothing Ventured, Nothing Lost.
I tried several times in the last two decades to come back to music. Most of these efforts involved playing with various groups and combos around town. The challenge I always ran into was the variety and differences of opinion in each group around what was ‘good enough.’ There have been many times that I was embarrassed to be on stage as I personally didn’t think the music was of a high enough quality. Conversely, there were times where I was embarrassed to be on stage as I couldn’t keep up with the other players.
In retrospect, a big part of my experiencing these feelings is grounded in how one defines ‘musical success.’ We can all have different tolerances around what we find acceptable and unacceptable. Just recently while playing with another group, a player at a rehearsal said, “Well we couldn’t play it more perfectly than that.” All I was thinking about in that moment was how much room there was for improvement.
When I came back to playing more regularly and decided to found Little Brown Jug Brass, I did it with a toolset that I had adapted from my ‘day job’ expertise in software development. One of the hardest parts of the creative process is deciding when to let something be functionally complete. While working with my various teams in software development, I would often say, “no work is ever finished, only abandoned,” to help us remember that we could tweak and fix forever, but the software needs to release at some point.
In the software world, we call this ‘The Definition of Done.’ The Definition of Done, or DOD, is an agreed-upon list of quantifiable and empirical items which let us know when we are done.
Having read the previous sentence you may or may not be aware that the most import words are ‘agreed-upon.’ When working within a group, there needs to be a means whereby the group agrees that something meets the Definition of Done.
By developing our own ‘Definition of Done,’ each member of LBJB has the tools to determine if they are meeting the DOD and if we, as a group, are meeting it. If there is a difference of opinion, we can then say, “ok what would it take for this piece to meet that condition?” and then focus our efforts on meeting it.
Of course DOD doesn’t really mean ‘done.’ It does, however, give us objective, measurable goals to achieve before we all agree that a song is stage ready. We then have the luxury of continuing to improve our musicality, nuance, performance, etc. secure in the knowledge that we are building on a solid foundation.
I had never been able to truly enjoy music before now as I was always pushing my happiness beyond the cognitive horizon. I would only allow myself to be happy when I played a piece perfectly. Even if I achieved goals that I had set for myself, I couldn’t enjoy them as there was always another goal to be met on the pernicious road to perfection.
Ultimately, balancing my desire to play at my best with the attitude of ‘my best doesn’t mean perfect’ has allowed me to experience something I have never experienced in music before now – joy!