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Home / Articles / Columnists / The 15 Second Principle /  Sydney´s Perfection
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Wednesday, January 2,2013

Sydney´s Perfection

By Al Secunda  
When I was growing up in New York, I studied flute for many years with a man named Sydney. Everything about him was correct and precise. His posture, speech, suits, and manicured fingernails all told the story of perfection. Every week, I knew that I had better be prepared. I also prayed that my tone would be clear and that I wouldn´t make too many mistakes. While his bark was much louder than his bite, whenever I saw Sydney, I was instantly reminded that music was an exact and serious craft.


Sydney was also one of the best flutists around. He recorded solo flute albums, taught other professionals, and was president of a professional musicians´ flute club. All of this was extremely impressive, but there was one thing about Sydney that I never quite understood. If he was such a great musician, why wasn´t he playing regularly with a major symphony orchestra?

This question remained unanswered for many years. Then one day in Los Angeles I happened to walk into a music repair shop and found myself talking to an older gentleman who was repairing an ancient clarinet. The conversation quickly shifted into legendary New York musicians. When I brought up Sydney´s name, the man was extremely impressed that I had studied with "the great one." At this point, I asked my unanswered question. "If Sydney was so amazing, why wasn´t he playing with the New York Philharmonic?" After hearing the question, the man looked up, and with a sad and humorous expression on his face, said, "Don´t you know about Sydney?

"No,” I answered. "Well, Sydney got nervous." "What?" I asked. "Sure. Sydney was the best, but he could get very nervous. Every time Toscanini would call, he´d get white."

At that moment, a large missing piece seemed to fall into place. Sydney´s problem was that the perfection he demanded in his students, he probably demanded in himself. Perhaps his obsession with precision was the very thing that caused him to feel so nervous. If he hadn´t put such a negative value on mistakes and included them in his universe, perhaps he would have enjoyed the performing process more.

From Sydney, I learned a great lesson regarding professionalism and precision. Our main goal should be to prepare and practice correctly and then to go out and have a relaxed, trusting, and selfexpressive time performing.

Demanding perfection puts too much of a strain on our system. Ironically, the fear of a mistake and our inability to make room for a possible error are the very things that encourage the mistake to occur. Dwelling on perfection or resisting imperfection will also dilute the amount of trust and passion we can generate in our performance.

The way out of this dilemma is to choose a performing world called self-expression. In this realm, include all possibilities (both perfection and imperfection). You are not embracing the mistakes but neither are you resisting or dreading them. Instead, you are including them in the possible performing mix-scenario.

By embracing a broad spectrum of all the possibilities, you will give yourself more freedom and create a safer environment within which to perform. This, in turn, will enhance your chances of tapping into an optimum performing state on a more regular basis. Jeanne Baxtresser, principal flute of the New York Philharmonic, says it best in the following quote:

Whenever you become too result oriented stop, slow down, and readjust your focus toward relaxation, trust, faith, and passion and away from a perfect outcome. This will create a safer and more nurturing environment within which to perform.

During an audition there should be a sense of spontaneity. It is a human experience to play music. To expect to play a note-perfect audition is unreasonable. I know in my three auditions I did a lot of playing at a high level, and even though I made some mistakes, the music came through because I was concentrating on sound, musicality, communicating emotion, and technical proficiciency. Most players forget the first three aspects and simply regard the process of learning excerpts as an Olympic event for speed and fingers. The music is forgiving:

once the notes and rhythm are secure, players should concentrate on communicating the essence of the music. It doesn´t matter if a note is bobbled along the way.*

*Flute Talk magazine, April 1995.

15 Second Principle by Al Secunda (available from Career Press) can make your most cherished dreams come true –15 seconds at a time. Al wrote Ultimate Tennis, NTC/Contemporary Publishing Group, Inc. He is a motivational speaker, workshop leader, and management consultant. He has made numerous appearances on NBC, CBS, CNN and other networks.

As a performer, for instance, I am interested in pursuing excellence, but that doesn´t mean I always achieve it. I hit and miss all the time, including in these shows... but I think one of the things that is important in life is to learn to accept your imperfections, which is something that I couldn´t understand for years.* Barbra Streisand * Los Angeles Times, May 23rd, 1994


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