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Monday, February 18, 2013

Monday Morning Check In: The Road to Excellence (Part 1)

Written by Paula E. Bird ©2013

I recall attending a concert with my father in Lancaster, Pennsylvania given by Bela Fleck and his group "The Flecktones." Fleck is an interesting musician. Classically trained as a youth, he took up the banjo at the end of high school. Since that time Fleck has carried banjo-playing to new heights. A Grammy award winner for his CD recording "Outbound," along with many, many more awards since that time, the music scene finds it difficult to categorize Fleck and his group into a particular genre, whether jazz, bluegrass, or country. Fleck even performs classical violin pieces on the banjo, such as the Bach solo violin sonatas. I have enjoyed several of his concerts and many of his CD recordings, and he and his colleagues are excellent musicians.

What is truly memorable about these fine musicians is the level of excellence to which they have aspired and attained. Each individual member has not only mastered his instrument but has moved beyond the basics and the middle ground to reach a level of performance technique and musicianship that is beyond the norm, which brings me to a discussion today about excellence.

What exactly is excellence? And once we know what it is, how do we go about getting it? Excellence is often defined as quality, distinction, and superiority; its opposite is usually defined as mediocrity, but excellence goes deeper than that.

Perhaps the best description I have read for the road to excellence comes from Amy Tan's book, The Bonesetter's Daughter (G. P. Putnam's Sons, New York, 2001). In the book one of the characters describes a book of brush paintings done on mulberry paper entitled "The Four Manifestations of Beauty." The emphasis added below is mine. In the book the character says:
"[W]ith any form of beauty, there are four levels of ability. This is true of painting, calligraphy, literature, music, dance. The first level is Competent. Competence . . . is the ability to draw the same thing over and over in the same strokes, with the same force, the same rhythm, the same trueness. This kind of beauty, however, is ordinary. 
"The second level . . . is Magnificent. This one goes beyond skill. Its beauty is unique. And yet it is simpler, with less emphasis on the stalk and more on the leaves. It conveys both strength and solitude. The lesser painter would be able to capture one quality but not the other.
"The third level is Divine. The leaves now are shadows blown by an invisible wind, and the stalk is there mostly by suggestion of what is missing. And yet the shadows are more alive than the original leaves that obscured the light. A person seeing this would be wordless to describe how this is done. Try as he might, the same painter could never again capture the feeling of this painting, only a shadow of the shadow.
"The fourth level . . . is greater than this, and it is within each mortal's nature to find it. We can sense it only if we do not try to sense it. It occurs without motivation or desire or knowledge of what may result. It is pure. It is what innocent children have. It is what old masters regain once they have lost their minds and become children again. . . . It is the simplicity of being within, no reason or explanation for being there. It is the natural wonder that anything exists in relation to another, an inky oval to a page of white paper, a person to a bamboo stalk, the viewer to the painting. . . . This fourth level is called Effortless." 
Step One: Competence

Using Amy Tan's descriptive words, the first step on the road to excellence is Competence. We usually think of competence as being an ability, proficiency, or skill. In his book Nurtured by Love, Dr. Suzuki defines the beginning as the "bud of ability" and states that the beginning will be slow until this bud of ability takes hold. "It is therefore a matter of patience and repetition. . . . [A]bility breeds ability."

Thus, we bring about competence by practicing a skill, by repeating it over and over until it is mastered. Dr. Suzuki agrees with this: "The development of ability cannot be accomplished by mere thinking or theorizing, but must be accompanied by action and practice. . . . Only through action can the power of the life force be displayed. Ability develops through practice. An idle person will not develop ability."

Competence grows with each practice of the skill until it becomes Magnificent, the second step of the road to excellence. And how the skill is practiced is important. Using proper technique in practice will produce the proper mastery. Improper practice habits will not produce mastery or competence; instead they will foster inability and incompetence.

Step Two: Magnificence

The magnificent portion of the road to excellence suggests movement toward artistry. Magnificence is a few steps beyond mere ability. It reaches a higher level of ability. It shows more than one dimension. Instead of just showing the proper notes, bowing, and rhythm, the student demonstrates the art hidden within the music. There is less emphasis on the actual technique used to produce the music; other musical qualities manifest themselves, such as phrasing and dynamics.

Step Three: Divine

The third level, the Divine, is the next step on the road to excellence. At this stage we move beyond technique and the production of art into the realm of true artistry and craftsmanship. When we achieve this level, others are often at a loss to understand how we achieved it. Our listeners are moved beyond mere listening and enjoyment. Instead of playing to exhibit the perfection of our technique, we share our gifts in a way that touches the hearts of others.

In order to find this level of excellence -- the divine -- we need to have something to share beyond our physical ability. We need to have something to express through the physical skills that we have developed. We need something in our hearts, some feeling of expression. To truly reach a listener, we must have something to communicate with the listener. Dr. Suzuki said that "[a] true artist is a person with beautiful and fine feelings, thoughts, and actions."

I am reminded of a story I read about the famous cellist Yo Yo Ma, who continually strived for a technically flawless performance. One night he felt he had achieved that goal only to find that he felt flat about his performance. He was not energized or fulfilled. By focusing on the accomplishment of flawless physical performance, he had forgotten to include a message in his music, a gift from his heart.

Step Four: Effortless

The fourth step on the road to excellence is Effortless, something that Amy Tan's character suggested we can all continually strive for, and something that perhaps we have naturally as children and then lose as we become adults. It is the simple wonder of just being in the moment or the present, of allowing intuition and innocence and wonder to open our senses, our hearts, and our minds to discover the beauty of what we are doing. In music, effortless playing is when the artist is unaware of the mechanics of scraping horsehair across metal strings attached to a wooden box and hears instead the sound of a singing bird or a beating heart or a whispering breeze. The musician plays effortlessly when he or she can move beyond the created sound waves to reach inside the soul and express the heart's overflowing feelings.

As audience members we will always remember performances like this -- when the music seemed to wash over us, brought tears to our eyes, made us shiver with excitement, or healed our pained hearts. Do we not all wish that our children could experience this sort of artistry? Why is excellence and effortlessness such a difficult thing to achieve?

Dr. Suzuki wrote that intuition was "the reliability slumbering at the base of rational experiences, and it works in an instant when needed. Without training, intuition (just like other abilities) cannot grow." Ah, there it is again. Training! The development of ability! But how do we do that with our children?

Actually, with the Suzuki Method, it is not so difficult to develop ability in our children. Children are already further along the road to excellence than we adults are. In Dr. Suzuki's words: "Children are examples of life in its truest form, for they really try to live in pure love and joy." Children already know how to live and play in the present moment. It is the adults who are responsible for guiding the child's learning who have difficulty, for we adults have strayed from the same path.

Next week I will continue the discussion about the road to excellence, and I will show you the enemy of excellence and how to walk the road of excellence. For this week, consider at which point along the road to excellence you are with your child.

Today is the seventh Monday of the year 2013, so take out your seventh penny from your penny jar (what's this?). How many pennies are left?


  1. What a phenomenal article. Can't wait for the next part! :-)

    1. Thank you, Kathryn. I hope you find something useful in part 2 as well.