Wabi-Sabi – The Art of Imperfection

Wabi-Sabi – The Art of Imperfection

Practicing Wabi-Sabi – The Art of Imperfection

When I was growing up, my father worked in Southeast Asia for several years and I had the chance to travel and live there.  So Asian art, philosophy and religion – especially  Buddhism – have had a strong influence on me, including Wabi-Sabi, an important principle of Japanese aesthetics.  Wabi-sabi celebrates the beauty in what is imperfect, flawed, or old.  It is related to the Buddhist belief that “nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect” (Richard Powell).

(Watch part of an episode of  King of the Hill incorporating the philosophy of  Wabi-Sabi).

This is in contrast to the Platonic ideal of the pursuit of perfection in beauty and art which is so often emphasized in our western culture.  Yet, we see in our consumer-driven society how striving for perfection can go overboard.  We toss out objects (think the latest IPhone) as soon as they lose their newness or try to achieve an unrealistic idea of beauty that can lead to binge dieting or excessive plastic surgery.

I think, as singers and musicians, there’s a middle ground. When we are creating music and practicing, we should always reach for the highest standards of our art.  Yet, if we are going to share our music with the world, we have to let go of “perfection paralysis.”  As human beings (as opposed to say, synthesizers) we can never achieve a flawless recording.  Even the most magnificent voices have idiosyncrasies.  In fact, sometimes we celebrate particular voices because of their distinctively imperfect sounds; whether it’s a note that cracks, hinting that the performer is fighting off tears, or a bit of gravel that tells us the singer has earned the right to sing the blues.

Likewise, in live performance it’s impossible to avoid all mistakes.  Even the great cellist Yo Yo Ma admitted (to the Boston Globe) that he makes mistakes every night.  He went on to say that he welcomed the first mistake because then he didn’t need to worry about it any more! If you’re too worried about perfection, it’s difficult to invest yourself emotionally and can lead to a superficial, uptight performance.  (See my blog about managing performance anxiety if you get  hung up on self-judgment in your live shows).

So work hard to be the best writer/singer/musician/performer you can be.  Put in your best efforts on your recording projects.  Make sure everything is in tune and in time, but don’t get caught up on tiny nuances  that lead to endless redo’s and punch-in’s : you’ll simply drain the life out of your performance.  It can be difficult to know when enough is enough. Ultimately, you have to  trust yourself but listen to people that you respect, as they may have a little more distance on the project.  Practice the art of Wabi-Sabi and remember, as Leonard Cohen wrote “There is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.”

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