The greatest lesson I learned during my graduate studies in the United States is a very simple thing but extremely important to us music creators.
"Done is better than perfect!". This concept not only serves for music but for all kinds of creative endeavors, artistic or not. This simple concept changed my life as a composer, arranger, and producer.
Do you want to understand more about this? I will share my thoughts and let you know how I arrived at this conclusion, all based on my experiences and personal progress. I will share some frustrations I had back in Brazil and also my professional achievement in the USA.
Perfectionism can be the enemy
I am a very self-critical person and a big perfectionist. These characteristics somehow blocked my creative process for many years. I used to start composing, putting my first ideas on paper, and suddenly, I would freeze. I often questioned myself at the beginning of the process, concluding that my work could have been better than it was. At that moment, I would abandon this new creation even before it started taking shape.
For this reason, I often produced much less than I could. I even took this issue into therapy to understand why I felt I could compose more, to create more, but I couldn't unlock the process.
You have to do it!
Over the years, when I arrived at the University of Miami to do my master's program in Studio Jazz Writing at the Frost School of Music, I came across the way of working proposed by my advisor, Gary Lindsay. He expected frequent production and delivery! I had weekly compositional assignments, had to write arrangements for big bands, do orchestrations, and do many other writing activities.
Attending the university with a full scholarship and the "Composer Fellow" position at the Henry Mancini Institute put a lot of responsibility on my shoulders. That is, my writing workload was immense. And there were no excuses; I had to do it all!
All these writing requirements, paired with my advisor's comments and feedback, encouraged me to put ideas on paper and write. Even if I wasn't satisfied with my creations at first or didn't think it was perfect. I had to get moving! I had to continue creating!
And don't be fooled into thinking I turned in bad work just for the sake of doing it. On the contrary, the responsibility was substantial, and the quality pressure was too high. After all, I was at one of the best music schools in America, and the artists I got to write for include jazz legends like Chick Corea and Terence Blanchard.
The key was to lower personal expectations at the start of creation to allow the process to continue. With the first drafts done, I could improve my musical compositions and revise and edit my works until I reached a satisfactory result.
Editing is part of the process
It dawned on me: editing is part of the creative process! Therefore I have a chapter dedicated to this topic in my online course on "Creative Processes," including several examples.
The understanding that editing is part of the creative process is essential. When we put ideas on paper, other ideas emerge. The act of writing is part of the development of thought; writing is - by the way - a way to expand our mental capacity.
As an experiment, try to solve a complex mathematical problem in your head; it's much more challenging, isn't it? When we put ideas on paper, we can see things from different angles and use our mental power to connect thoughts differently. The same goes for creating music.
The process starts to flow better when we become aware that what we write at the beginning is not necessarily what will be at the end. By removing this pressure that the music needs to be perfect right away, it becomes much easier to overcome the barriers that ego and self-criticism place on us.
Many musicians who work with me joke that I do a lot of revisions and that new versions emerge at each rehearsal. That's true; I don't stick to what I wrote initially. Maybe, in the future, I'll look and realize that I could have written things differently, and if I think it's worth changing, believe me, I do!
It is common for me to have several versions of the same composition or arrangement. These musical creations will evolve over the years until I decide to stop and stick with a final version, usually the one to be officially recorded.
Is it done? Now you can get close to perfect!
This understanding is perhaps the greatest lesson I learned from my graduate studies in the United States. Understanding that being done is better than perfect makes it possible to get closer to perfect. That's because we put ourselves in a position of constant production and evolution.
My time at the University of Miami was one of the most productive times in my life! It made me grow and mature a lot as a composer and arranger. I managed to go up a big step in my career: I went from being a talented student to a recognized professional with many awards in his resume, including a Grammy nomination.
And you, have you been putting your ideas on paper? Have you produced enough? What have you already done that can come close to perfect?
If your process is not flowing as you would like, I invite you to learn about my Creative Processes course. It can help you on this mission in search of your best versions!
Epilogue: the origin of the word
We can have perfection as an aspiration, an idealization, but we must reflect on what we really want.
When researching the origin of the word, I had a liberating reflection. "Perfect," in Latin, means "completely done, done in full, already finished, already completed."
Do we - really - want to take that form? Wouldn't that be a definition of death?
Perfection is the absence of the possibility of change, process, or development. We should not have it as a place to reach so soon, but rather, understand it as a quest that sets us in motion and propels us toward evolution.
At the same time, accepting imperfection as a state of transformation and potential for achievement is to embrace the human condition. And it is there that art flourishes.
Did you like the article?
Ask me questions and post suggestions for future blogs in the comment section below!
Also, check out my online courses: “Creative Processes” and “Fundamentals of Audio and Video Production for Musicians”.
About the author
Rafael Piccolotto de Lima has been nominated for a Latin Grammy as the best classical composer. He holds a doctorate in jazz composition from the University of Miami and has multiple awards as an arranger, musical director, producer, and educator.
His works have been premiered and/or recorded by jazz legends such as Terence Blanchard, Chick Corea, and Brad Mehldau, renowned Brazilian artists such as Ivan Lins, Romero Lubambo, and Proveta, and orchestras such as the Brazilian Jazz Symphony, the Americas Symphony Orchestra, and the Metropole Orkest (Netherlands).