Give Yourself Permission To Stink

Last Updated on 2024-02-04 | Originally Posted on 2018-05-21


It’s said that perfectionists never get anything done. Despite that somewhat true saying, the expectation in music is that we aim for perfection. You’ve probably heard the expression for when we slightly miss the mark: “It’s close enough for government work.” Fortunately, there are enough folks who see that lie for what it is. As Sierra Teller Ornelas suggests in this article (h/t Kara Cutruzzula), give yourself permission to stink! Beware, she uses a more salty word for stink.

Trying the Violin

I took a class in violin as an undergraduate, which was offered for music education majors who didn’t play the instrument. For me, a performance major, it was just for kicks. However, I learned firsthand why it’s virtually impossible to learn violin as an adult. Drawing the bow to make a pleasing sound takes a long time, perhaps weeks or months of daily practice. It does for children as well, but fortunately, they don’t know (or care) how bad they sound, until they sound good.

Henry, a double-bassist down the hall in my dorm, reminded me in case I wasn’t sure. He demanded that I go down to the basement practice cells because the sound was that bad! I did finish out the semester, and I was able to play through the third position. Sometimes humbling experiences can be our best ones!

Adult Students

It’s probably no surprise that adult students are generally much less successful at following through with a commitment to learn piano than kids. I say generally because I currently have one adult student who understands the long-term commitment and has made the type of progress that’s self-reinforcing. Most adults, however, face a double whammy.

One, they have life obligations that children don’t have, and I think you have to overthink that career, family, or health concerns rank higher than pursuing a hobby. However, I think that’s only part of it. Two, they have done so many things well, but now they’re now faced with a challenge that can’t be overcome in a week, month, or even a year. It’s hard to survive the dip, as Seth Godin coined the term.

Beware of the 80% Plateau

I slipped that story in there as an example of what a beginning student goes through, from my first-hand adult experience. However, even when we’re good at what we do, it doesn’t mean that we don’t face obstacles getting through the 80% plateau. Briefly, it’s that place we arrive at after sufficient practice. The piece sounds pretty good overall, but there are places needing more work. More run-throughs won’t make a difference. It’s hard. It takes time to tear down those sections, try new fingerings and gestures, and practice slowly again. Then, we need to reassemble and reintegrate those passages into the piece.

Permission to Stink

Unless a piece is clearly below our level of accomplishment, it’s going to take time to learn well. The first performance of any new piece, or a full program of pieces, will likely be the worst. It will get better with repeated performances, more practice, and even after being put aside for weeks or months. I’m not saying that we should purposely stink! Ms. Ornelas explains this in her work as a television writer and producer:

You’re taught this insane work ethic, so if it’s not perfect, it’s garbage. And the way you actually create art is by making garbage first, and then getting better and better. And so giving yourself permission to suck is such a hard thing to do.

Sierra Teller Ornelas

Why Musicians Have Warm-Up Events

I just held a piano party for my piano studio. Some kids were trying out their pieces for an upcoming festival for the first time. Other kids were trying out pieces that they had just learned but had not perfected. I often learn new organ repertoire that I try out as preludes or postludes at my church job before I’d put them into a recital or play them for fellow organists. Musicians of all genres, even ones at the top of their field, try out their new material in front of small audiences before they go on tour to play for larger venues.

In Conclusion

Creative workers understand that their work will go through many iterations before it becomes good, much less great. Legendary salesman and motivational speaker Zig Ziglar said basically the same thing decades ago: “Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly…until you can do it well.” Sounds like giving yourself permission to stink, right? And I’m sure plenty of sages have said similar things. As Ms. Ornelas said, “Make mistakes in front of as many people as you can.”

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