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The curse of perfection

Perfectionism in music is a modern scourge, and Peter Cropper, who died in May, demonstrated that it is a distracting priority for musicians

The word ‘unique’ is one of the most over-used in the English language; the frequent addition of ‘very’, the most annoyingly redundant. The fact is that most of us are replaceable. Whether we’re musicians, teachers, writers or editors, there’s usually someone else around the corner who will do what we do just as well as us.

Peter Cropper was both unique and irreplaceable. The violinist’s death on 29 May at the age of 69 came as a complete shock to the music world, and as is too often the case, many of us only really got round to thinking about his uniqueness when he was no longer around to celebrate it. Fortunately, his legacy remains, in the recordings he left, and the rich memories that those who heard him playing live hold, as well as the life lessons we can still learn from him.

What made him irreplaceable? Certainly, his influence on generations of audiences, both musicians, and, more importantly, non-musicians, was vast. Read Charlotte Higgins’s tribute to him to understand some of the impact he and his fellow Lindsay members made in Sheffield, and even just in the act of setting up the Music in the Round festival outside London. Read the comments below the line on his Guardian obituary to gauge some of the visceral affect his playing had on people, bringing alive the chamber music repertoire. Read his words about starting his Bridge Project to help young players in order to understand how his passion for music translated into action as well as into his music.

One of the things that made him unique was, ironically, his lack of perfection. As far back as I can remember, it was said of him that he wasn’t the most accurate of players. I wasn’t prepared, when I interviewed him for ChamberStudio, for him to revel in this: 'We did it because we loved it, and I think it came across. I don’t say it was always immaculate. Who wants perfection? Perfection is sterile. We’re human beings.’ And in listening to his recordings since he died, I’ve understood this lack of perfection in a new light. Some of it is ropey, and yet it’s never less than compelling. It has all the power he intended when he said: ‘Isn’t music really all about emotional communication? Isn’t that what life is all about? If you bake a cake, you don’t want to stuff your face with the whole lot, you want to share it. If you make anything, you want to share it with people.’

For me, this is the vital lesson that players can take from Peter Cropper, and it's never been more needed than now. Perfection is a treachorous aspiration, trapping players within themselves and the variables they feel they can control. Playing in tune, in time, with a nice sound and at speed are relatively easy, given hours and discipline. Finding meaning in a score and communicating it are far harder, and more intangible, and take a more self-searching form of discipline. But it seems to me, from listening to young string players around the world for many years, that technical perfectionism is a modern disease. It’s why so many people talk about how there are many good players these days but few great musical personalities. It’s why it’s so rare that I sit in a concert hall feeling deeply touched. Maybe it’s even why classical music doesn’t reach people who aren’t brought up understanding that perfection – certainly Peter Cropper was able to grab anyone by the scruff of their neck with his playing, musically educated or not.

Maybe this is caused by the impact of recordings, or by today’s judgmental society, or globalisation, or the massive competition for work. I’ve heard many players who play beautifully, brilliantly and beyond reproach. And yet it has said nothing to me. Nor is this confined to competitions, where you might expect a drive towards accuracy. I’ve heard it often in concert halls. Some of today’s best-known players succumb to Perfection Syndrome, and even if I get lynched for it, I’d say that the tendency is more marked among female players (I’d also argue there are mitigating reasons for this, though, but maybe in another blog).

The composer John Woolrich put it beautifully in an interview I did with him recently for ‘Perfection is over-rated. Art lives in the cracks and black holes. Art is a much more sophisticated thing than just getting it right.’ And Charlie Chaplin wrote of it in his autobiography: ‘I don’t want perfection of detail in the acting. I’d hate a picture that was perfect – it would seem machine made. I want the human touch, so that you love the picture for its imperfections.’

I’m not suggesting that players should wilfully play out of tune and sound rough. Of course not – I've always been the first to raise eyebrows at bad intonation and the like (other people's of course). But technical perfection shouldn’t be the priority. There’s an old life-coaching saying, ‘You get what you focus on.’ If you focus on perfection, you get perfection. If you focus on communicating something important to an audience, telling a story, that’s what you get. It’s not that you can’t have both at the same time, as today’s great players demonstrate. But maybe you can only fully achieve the goal that has your full focus. Certainly, Peter Cropper’s focus was communicating, and that’s what he achieved, and his loss really has robbed us of a role model in that respect.

The other lesson I’ve learnt from Cropper’s death is the rather obvious one about not taking people for granted. I feel very lucky to have been able to interview him for ChamberStudio, not just because it was one of the most fun interviews I ever got to do, but because it left something lasting and tangible of him for future generations who otherwise only have his recordings (and seemingly very little on film, if YouTube is to be believed). How many special players there must be out there, maybe no longer active, but with so much to say and so much wisdom from previous generations to pass on. This isn’t a plug for my services. Interviewing isn’t rocket science. So if any of you know any special players, or teachers, go and visit them. Switch on your recording devices and ask them lots and lots of questions. It’s that simple. Type it up, edit it, and put it on your website, or on Facebook, or send it to your friends – anything to keep the wisdom alive.

Peter Cropper and the Lindsays perform the Cavatina from Beethoven's op.130:

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