Saturday, August 16, 2008

The Pursuit of Perfection

Elizabeth McClung of Screw Bronze wrote an entry based on a segment of my entry on our new dojo. She got me thinking about the perfection as a goal, how we get there, how you drive yourself to achieve.

Perfection has been both boon and bane of my existence. A boon when it drives me forward, taking me to levels I wouldn't have thought I could attain. A bane when it's very unattainability causes me to either drive myself past the point of diminishing returns, or worse, causes me to simply toss my hands up and give up. The pursuit of is why I have a novel at all, let alone another two in process. But perfectionism is why I can't ever seem to make that novel good enough to pass my own muster and get sent out into the world.

My first real experience of an utter drive to perfection came in the form of my college choir director. The new director, that is. I tried out for the Wellesley College Choir when I first arrived on campus and made it in. At that point they had a director who had been with the choir for 40+ years. He ran a warm, friendly choir. They were good, no doubt, but they were comfortable. That Christmas I got my first ever solo part (I had been a year behind a couple of extraordinary singers in HS, and then switched schools my senior year.). I thought I had this singing thing pretty well down.

Then after winter break, things changed. Our old director got ill, and we started a hunt for a new director. In the meanwhile we had a temporary director. Our interim director pushed us harder, gave us new material, and generally livened the place up. We loved him, and most of us wished he could become the new director, but he committed to Harvard instead. So we started interviewing candidates. I remember four, but I'm not sure if there were more than that. The choir officers would review applications, then interview, and then the choir would have a working interview.

Constance stood out from the pack. She wasn't able to make the working interview on a regular choir night - so she came to the Collegium Musicum to do her trial. Unlike the Choir, the Collegium did not do tryouts. Anybody who liked medieval music was welcome to sing - so we had everything from serious musicians and singers, to people who had serious trouble holding pitch. I was in it largely because I would sing in any group that would have me - for someone with perfect relative (though not absolute) pitch, the Collegium could be pretty painful on occassion.

The night Constance tried out, she stood us in a row, and tried to get us to divide a whole note into sixteenths (that being the number of people we had that night) - not rhythmically, by pitch. The person on the left hand side started by singing a C, the next person sang just slightly higher, the next higher still, until (theoretically) the last person was singing a D with the group having gotten there by even steps.

She nearly managed it. With a group of largely untrained (maybe 50%) singers, many of who couldn't hold a pitch to match the group, she nearly managed to get even 16th divisions. I was completely floored. The rest of her trial was equally impressive, but that one thing was what stuck in my mind. When time came for the final vote, I voted for Constance, and urged everyone who would listen to me to do the same. And she got the job.

We had no idea what we were in for.

The next year Constance (DeFotis) showed up. The differences became evident immediately. By Flower Sunday, the first concert of the year, only two weeks into the school year, it was already evident that this was new management indeed. Good wasn't good enough. Flower Sunday, by its nature tends to have old familiar music, but even with stuff we knew cold, Constance found things to work on - lots of things. Lots and lots of things. Our unison wasn't great. Our vocal technique wasn't great. Our rhythm wasn't solid enough. After Flower Sunday she started introducing new and more challenging music, and driving us harder than ever. We went from good to excellent. At the same time, she instituted a Glee Club to be a training ground for singers who weren't quite up to her stringent standards for the choir, and a Chamber Singers as an elite group. By the time the choir auditioned for new singers in my junior year, the choir had become so much better and so much higher profile, that despite the requirements being more stringent than ever, we had the largest choir ever - 127 women.

It didn't last. My junior year we were scheduled to go on tour (Ireland, England, Wales) in the spring and compete in the Limerick Choral Festival. Within three months we had gone from the largest choir ever to the smallest. Constance drove us. We learned new music - amazingly difficult contemporary pieces, complicated classical pieces, even one piece written just for us by her brother, William DeFotis named (no I'm not kidding): How Many Times Have We Found Ourselves Mouthing Recieved Opinions, Using the Language of Oppression, Before We No Longer Have Any Claim To Be Oblivious, To Our Having Become, Both Victims and Perpetrators of Injustice. If you think it's a mouthful to say, it was much more to sing. We were expected to practice several hours a week on our own time as well as the time in official practice. When we went home for winter break we were expected to memorize a pile of new music - in German. We were tested in quartets when we got back - and everybody failed. Constance was disgusted. At the first rehearsal she absolutely tore into us, and then started working us even harder. It was insanely hard. Every word of every piece was memorized. We rehearsed them in sections, in quartets, with our eyes closed, in triplets, while counting - any and every way I have ever heard of to rehearse music. We worked on our singing technique. We worked on responsiveness to our director. We worked on our German diction with a native German student. And we did all of this over and over and over to Constance's exacting standards. I alternated between loving how much better I was getting - how much better we were getting - and hating how much work and how much of a time suck the whole thing was. Was it really worth thirty minutes of drill just to better differentiate our triplets from our quadruplets? Was it worth doing that drill over and over again?

The tour was astonishing. We knew we were improving, but from the inside, we never really got a good view of just how much we had improved. At the Choral Festival we won our section easily - and then we won the whole shebang. We were the first non-Irish choir to ever win that competition (going by what the other choirs were saying, I've never actually looked it up), with the highest score ever given. We blew the roof off!

But the most amazing thing was that the competition wasn't what we were shooting for. The competition was the side-effect. What we were shooting for was perfection, and while we never achieved it, as no one ever can, we became glorious in its pursuit.

I have, somewhere in my old tapes, a recording of the Wellesley Choir in my senior year. It's the Vespers concert. In the middle of a song (Lullay my Liking), one of the soloists comes in a third high, leaving us in the wrong key. In the split second between the end of the solo and the entry of the choir, Constance gave us the correct note. Every person caught the cue and the choir comes in on time and on key. In the recording, even having been there and knowing exactly what happened and when, I cannot hear the correction. It was that fast and seamless. Never before or since have I been part of a group that truly excellent.

But I keep hoping that someday I will. And I keep striving to become that truly excellent in my individual endeavors, knowing that the glory is at least as much in the pursuit as in the achievement.


Elizabeth McClung said...

I would agree about the boon and the bane of it - It is a time suck, and I need people like Linda to say, "This is the limit, this is enough" - I like what you write about choir becuase I was in a choir for several years, then moved to the UK, joined a mandrigal group; I had sung in german and latin but they expected me to sing in old english, in norse, and to sight read the music the first time, with no accompaniment. It was as you said, insane; I went home many days feeling not good about myself, but I also went everywhere either singing under my breath or a little louder as sometimes I WAS the counter quarter in the mandrigal, if I was lucky I might have another - there was no hiding in this group.

Yeah, I wish I could have met Constance. I have always told people that trying for absolute perfection and failing still brings a history of things which are amazing, and which I never would have achieved without that attempt - but I have never tried to drag an entire group with me. She sounds like a unique charistmatic but also solid individual, someone who knew they would be hated by everyone at some point but believe in themselves and the group and the product which would emerge.

PS - I hope you liked that card, it was a congrats on the park demo and a "special" postcard

Perpetual Beginner said...

Constance was amazing. The most absolutely single-minded person I've ever encountered, and brilliant in her knowledge and drive. People either loved being under her, or quit and ran. We did Old English and Latin at various times, but I don't think we ever did Norse. Japanese once! When I started college I was already a good sight-singer (10 out of 10 on the All-State tryouts). By the time Constance was done with me I could read a piece of music as readily as I could read a page of text.

I love the card. Who knew there were so many stickers of ladies with swords out there? The girl on the card has almost the exact color eyes I do, and tying the strings with her mouth somehow seems very familiar...