The Problem With Excellence

Origin From: Total Vocal
Author: Deke Sharon
Date: 2014-03-11

Although I don't know that it's necessarily a trend, I'm seeing the word excellence appear more and more in vocal circles. 

In one case, when writing liner notes, I'm asked if I can change a phrase about interconnectivity to one about pursuit of excellence. 

In another case, in an online discussion, the concept of excellence is a given, as though competence is rare and excellence the eternal goal. 

In yet another, I increasingly hear and read opinions about which groups excel beyond the others, as if there's a fixed supply of excellence and it is perpetually being redistributed between groups. 

And then there are the posts with group's score cards from competitions, discussions of points earned and lost, comparisons of categories and abilities. 

Now, let me make something clear: I am not against excellence. No one is. 

And I believe one's own ongoing journey toward improvement should be applauded and rewarded. 

However, excellence has a close friend that is almost always tagging along, uninvited and ruining the party: judgement. 

"Wait, how can judgement be bad?" you're thinking. "We all judge every day, and without some determination from time to time, we will have no measure of anything!" 

Fair enough, but the perpetual judgement that comes with the determined, ongoing pursuit of excellence can be debilitating. Just ask a critic. 

I'm going to assume you're like most people when you eat. You choose food you generally like, and enjoy it. From time to time something crosses your palate that is especially tasty or disagreeable, and you make note of it. The rest of the time you're focused on food as nourishment and pleasure. As you should be. 

But what if you were a food critic, not only of restaurant meals, but of everything that passes your lips? Judging every plate, every bite, every ingredient. You disassemble and reassemble dishes in your mind, comparing to past meals, considering, measuring, assessing. Everything needs a score in your mind, everything needs to be ranked and critiqued. 

Food would no longer become a pleasure for you, except in the rarest of cases when everything was perfect. The rest of the time you would be chasing the memories you have of past perfect meals that frankly were likely not perfect, but since you were not judging then you let it all wash over you in the moment. 

Or imagine you're a movie critic. Try watching the next movie you see with a critical eye, disassembling each scene, shot, line of dialog. I'll bet it will be the rare movie that is able to sweep you away. Instead, you'll be trapped in your left brain, looking for flaws, considering how everything can be improved, where the director and cinematographer and editor and actors went wrong. 

Now, let's return to a cappella. Remember that first concert you saw? The first group you sang with? Your first standing ovation, encore, solo? Of course you do, because you weren't actively judging back then, you were simply experiencing. 

However, if you find yourself deeply entrenched in a cappella circles yet only appreciative of an increasingly small group of recordings and groups, I posit that you're caught in this cycle of excellence and judgement. You love a cappella, yet you find yourself loving it less often and less powerfully. Only the very best will impress you, and even then it's a rarity. 

I'm reminded of an expression I heard long ago, I'm not sure where: "You can be right or you can be happy." 

At the time the comment was regarding communication, emphasizing that you can focus on winning an argument ("being the one judged 'right'), or you can realize that the point of communication is to better understand and be understood, and there need not only be a winner and loser. To find greater understanding is the higher goal and greater good (when possible, of course). 

As an a cappella singer/director/arranger/producer/whathaveyou, you're acutely aware of the building blocks and elements that comprise a recording or performance. And you are welcome at all times to focus on the precision and effectiveness of all of them. You are always welcome to be a critic. And you will always be right, since there's no accounting for taste, by which I mean there's no way for you to be proven wrong, since only you are able to determine what you like. There is no absolute arbiter of musical quality, no giant score card in the sky, so if you say something isn't good, you're right, it isn't good. 

But do you want to be right all of the time, or do you want to be happy? Don't you want to be able to sit down to a big plate of a cappella and enjoy it the way you did when you first started? You can. 

You simply need to stop obsessing about excellence. Stop patting yourself on the back, impressed that you can hear every flaw, because you're then focusing on every imperfection and not allowing yourself to simply experience the music that's being shared with you. Stop comparing this group to that group, this arrangement to that arrangement, as if a cappella is a checklist. It isn't... unless you want it to be, and then Voila! It is. 

Everything in the world is imperfect. You can choose to see the imperfections or look for the beauty in all things - people, places, food, movies, and a cappella. I'm not saying you'll stop judging - that would be impossible - but your judgement will be far more passive, and you'll be able to see the forest instead of the broken limbs on every tree. I'm not saying you'll immediately love every piece of music you hear, but you will be able to enjoy far more than you did. 

You can be right, or you can be happy.



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