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Thread: The Myth of Perfection

  1. #1
    Registered User Nick Gellie's Avatar
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    Default The Myth of Perfection

    I am posing a philosophical question here about the pursuit of perfection in mandolin making and in the eye and feel of a player - that we desire something perfect in a mandolin above all else and that any slight imperfection in a mandolin might mean that we find less favour with it and seek other mandolins with greater perfection.

    I say this as an amateur part-time luthier who scrutinizes my work thoroughly and find it hard to accept very slight blemishes in production. I even removed a fingerboard the other day because of what I saw as a blemish in it. I managed to remove it without a blemish which was a feat in a way.

    I admire the perfection which Collings and other makers achieve in their mandolins and having owned a few I can vouch for them in this regard. I was looking at my own mandolin and thinking how close can I get to these with pretty rudimentary tools and workshop. Here in Spain life is pretty rudimentary in a lot of ways and it teaches you to be practical, innovative and pragmatic - Spaniards are a pretty down-to-earth people. I live in a place where some famous Spanish and extranjero luthiers here charge about 6000-8000 Euros for a Spanish classical or flamenco guitar and I have seen perfection in their instruments too.

    I am wondering where the boundaries lie achieving perfection and being pragmatic about what we play when in the past people made do with lot less of it and still played great music.
    Nic Gellie

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    Default Re: The Myth of Perfection

    I'll preface this by saying that I'm totally respectful of, grateful for and endlessly impressed by the dedication of artisans whatever their art my be. I think most want to achieve 'perfection' in their efforts firstly for the sense of satisfaction that brings to themselves as artisans/craftspeople. Saying that , I've learned something about my OWN pursuit of perfection as a player ( we ARE speaking in a music forum ). For me the joy is in the act of learning/playing/ honing chops and NOT so much the quality of , the appearance of , the accolades about or the bells and whistles included in a using a ' high end ' instrument . The satisfaction for me is in the doing ....the playing , the learning , the creativity and , of course , the camaraderie . I'm not looking for an instrument to keep me engaged with the above-mentioned rewards . Certainly a playable instrument is necessary ..but the 'perfect instrument ' is the absolute last thing I've ever needed to feel the satisfaction of a great performance/gig and an overall fun experience . I suppose its like going out for a meal with friends . For me , its rarely about the food , the presentation, etc..Its always about the quality of the time spent in the company of friends ..or one friend ....followed by the ' where ' . Great food is a complete bonus ....as would be a GREAT instrument if all else was in place . Its the process ...the doing ...the creating , the striving , the improving ....that's what fuels my fire when it comes to music-making . In that respect , I'm certain it must be the same for a great artisan/ luthier . The joy must surely be in the process of creating , building , fine-tuning and improving /honing the skill set with the bonus being a great instrument as a result . I have felt as much inspiration , joy and satisfaction playing a $50 instrument as I have a $1500.00 instrument when the circumstances were in place. And only a small percentage of that satisfaction came from my gear .

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    Default Re: The Myth of Perfection

    There is no such thing as perfection. We all strive to improve, but perfection is not attainable. I know I have made mandolins I think are near to perfection, but then the next or the next after that is even better, so it was not perfect after all. You learn as you go. Perfection is in the eye of the beholder, so what one person may see as perfect is no where near perfect to another. As a maker, time costs money so too much time trying to achieve perfection means I starve. So there is always a time when you need to say that is as good as I can get this mandolin to be, any improvements will be very small and take way too much time, learn from it and is now time move on to the next, which hopefully should be better. There is also the balance between sound and appearance - i.e. how much time do you spend on fancy decorations and flawless finish, vs how much time to spend on improving the sound. You can't do both and keep the time (and hence price) blowing out to the ridiculous. Where that balance lies depends on the individual maker, and customers also have preferences. Personally I prefer to spend far more time on researching ways to improve the sound. Achieving near perfect joinery and finishing takes practice, just as near perfect playing also takes practice, lots of it.
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    Registered User sunburst's Avatar
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    Default Re: The Myth of Perfection

    I've come to be almost offended by the very word "perfect" or "perfection".
    I am a perfectionist. Most people don't know what that means. Most people think it means someone who does excellent work. That's not what is means. It means nothing short of perfection is good enough for the perfectionist. In some cases that can be debilitating and cause people to spend long long periods of time trying to get things perfect; they are not satisfied with their life partners because they are not perfect; they hate their bodies because they are not perfect. It goes on and on and it can be horrible for those people because, as Peter said, perfection does not exist.
    I've learned to moderate my expectations and although I still work far beyond the point of diminishing return trying to get things better I understand that perfection doesn't exist.

    Excellence, on the other hand does exist. We can strive for and achieve excellence but we cannot achieve perfection. Furthermore, once we've reached excellence we can still improve.

    No instrument is perfect, no luthier is perfect, but many luthiers do excellent work and make excellent instruments. If they are young enough, even the excellent luthiers can improve... but they can't reach perfection.

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    Mando-Accumulator Jim Garber's Avatar
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    Default Re: The Myth of Perfection

    I am convinced that perfection is a process not a final goal, more the getting there than the arrival. I am also fascinated by the Japanese concept of wabi sabi, which, believe it or not, I first heard about from Martin Hayes, one of my favorite Irish fiddlers. He did a solo concert a year or two ago in a funky old barn in Connecticut and his stories and talk were almost as inspiring as his uplifting music.

    From the Wikipedia article above:
    In traditional Japanese aesthetics, wabi-sabi (侘寂) is a world view centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection.[2] The aesthetic is sometimes described as one of appreciating beauty that is "imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete" in nature.[3] It is a concept derived from the Buddhist teaching of the three marks of existence (三法印, sanbōin), specifically impermanence (無常, mujō), suffering (苦, ku) and emptiness or absence of self-nature (空, kū).

    Characteristics of wabi-sabi aesthetics and principles include asymmetry, roughness, simplicity, economy, austerity, modesty, intimacy, and the appreciation of both natural objects and the forces of nature.
    And you can apply that to the luthier's art and the practice of learning to play an instrument, which in my humble opinion is a long view toward but never achievig perfection.
    Jim

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    Default Re: The Myth of Perfection

    Wow thanks everybody for your excellent responses. Yes the pursuit of excellence is what it is really about. I really like Jim's take on wabi-sabi. Some of those principles could be applied to mandolin culture here on the forum.

    The pursuit of perfection seems to be one of the goals of mandolin cafe aficionados. I was one of them until I realised it was an illusion. My take on it now is we strive for some level of acceptable excellence which we balance with other goals like having a good time playing music with our friends and having enjoyable experiences playing music generally. Roysboy summed it up pretty much in his post.
    Nic Gellie

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    Registered Muser dang's Avatar
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    Default Re: The Myth of Perfection

    Imperfect perfection? (LLoars per Darrel)

    We should be seeking Arete? (greek, borrowed from Pirsig)
    I should be pickin' rather than postin'

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    🎶 Play Pretty 🎶 Greg Connor's Avatar
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    Default Re: The Myth of Perfection

    “PERFECTION IS OVERRATED” I’ve learned that lesson over and over again. It’s admirable to strive for it, but in the end it might drive you crazy.

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    Default Re: The Myth of Perfection

    The trouble with perfection is that it can make the end result seem bland. In a similar way, modern recording techniques tend to seek perfection whereas many live recordings have greater character.

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    Default Re: The Myth of Perfection

    Since my early exposure to playing mandolin, almost 60 years, I have been fascinated by musical instruments. Sound emanating from wooden boxes, wave patterns hitting my ears from a simple needle vibrating along a vinyl groove, to the soothing music of waves hitting the shoreline, to me, were always perfect and enlightening, whatever the source. I was always fascinated and amazed by the patience and perseverance of luthiers who would spend hour upon hour carving, tapping, sanding, polishing, refining and finally completing their final instrument. Luthiers then hand over their precious prized pieces of art to musicians to bring out the most delicate and inspiring sound. Only after the tuning up of the strings could the sound be expressed from these magnificent creations. What an incredible amount of time and energy is invested by these fine artists to provide us with such joyful works of art. I think it is just perfect as it is.
    Thanks to all of you for serving our profound community of musicians by providing us with all these profoundly beautiful musical instruments. It surely has added inspiration and joy to my life.

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    Default Re: The Myth of Perfection

    I have always wanted to see the 'workman's hand' in the individual-luthier instruments I have owned. I don't actually want perfection, I want evidence of the process.

    And over the years, I have moved away from wanting bling to wanting simplicity. I want to see the beauty of the wood and craft, not to add-on decorations. The exception to this is an artful inlay in which, again, I see the hand of the artist.

    Still, that's just my aesthetic choice. The desire of those who want decorative opulence is just as valid and can be just as beautiful. I have just come around to seeking simplicity in design and craft.
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    two t's and one hyphen fatt-dad's Avatar
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    Default Re: The Myth of Perfection

    two thoughts:

    It's like a Persian rug. Were it not for the imperfections, you'd think it made by a machine. (An echo in my mind for decades.)

    On the road to excellence, enjoy mediocrity. (My playing mantra.)

    Just keep building!

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    Default Re: The Myth of Perfection

    Little Feat have a song on their Down on the Farm album called "Perfect Imperfection".

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    Mando-Accumulator Jim Garber's Avatar
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    Default Re: The Myth of Perfection

    More on wabi sabi: just an attitude that in the journey to perfection we can still appreciate the imperfections along the way. A wonderful outlook on life in general—it is all good.
    Jim

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    Default Re: The Myth of Perfection

    Quote Originally Posted by Jim Garber View Post
    I am also fascinated by the Japanese concept of wabi sabi, which, believe it or not, I first heard about from Martin Hayes, one of my favorite Irish fiddlers.
    I first read the term in a post by Gail Hester, commenting on the design of the Griffith Loar:

    https://www.mandolincafe.com/forum/t...highlight=wabi
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    Default Re: The Myth of Perfection

    Geez, I'm still striving for adequacy.

    I think a musical life spent with folk music, has taught me that what we might call "imperfections," whether physical, acoustic, or intellectual, are part of character, can be revelatory, and given the generally heuristic (a practical method that is not guaranteed to be optimal, perfect, or rational, but is nevertheless sufficient for reaching an immediate, short-term goal or approximation) approach of folk-based music and related culture, should be not only accepted, but celebrated.

    Anyway, that's how I defend all my musical mistakes. YMMV.
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    Default Re: The Myth of Perfection

    Quote Originally Posted by allenhopkins View Post
    Geez, I'm still striving for adequacy.

    I think a musical life spent with folk music, has taught me that what we might call "imperfections," whether physical, acoustic, or intellectual, are part of character, can be revelatory, and given the generally heuristic (a practical method that is not guaranteed to be optimal, perfect, or rational, but is nevertheless sufficient for reaching an immediate, short-term goal or approximation) approach of folk-based music and related culture, should be not only accepted, but celebrated.

    Anyway, that's how I defend all my musical mistakes. YMMV.
    Agreed. As some sage said: if you hang onto your bad habits long enough, they become your "style."
    Last edited by Ranald; Oct-23-2020 at 11:24am.
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    Lomax, Alan, The Land where The Blues Began, NY: Pantheon, 1993, p.14.

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    Default Re: The Myth of Perfection

    I’m a retired shop teacher. I would tell my students that “We strive for perfection. If we cannot achieve it, strive for the illusion of perfection”

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    Default Re: The Myth of Perfection

    Quote Originally Posted by sunburst View Post
    I've come to be almost offended by the very word "perfect" or "perfection"... It means nothing short of perfection is good enough for the perfectionist. In some cases that can be debilitating and cause people to spend long long periods of time trying to get things perfect ... I still work far beyond the point of diminishing return trying to get things better
    When my son was starting out as a luthier, he was doing the French polish work at the shop of a well-established, highly regarded classical guitar builder. My son was taking longer on each guitar than the builder wanted him to, given that he was paying by the hour. So, the builder checked in at one point to see why a specific guitar wasn't finished. My son showed him what he still needed to take care of on this $5K guitar (We're talking ten years ago.), and the builder said that very few builders and probably no musicians would ever see those imperfections. His mantra was, "We're building guitars for great musicians, not great builders."


    Quote Originally Posted by allenhopkins View Post
    Geez, I'm still striving for adequacy.
    We're part of a HUGE club!

    At the Mandolin Symposium one year, David Grisman and Mike Marshall were discussing the idea of players' levels, and they both declared themselves to be "advanced intermediate," explaining all the things that they still couldn't do --- or do extremely well. You can imagine the collective groan from the audience.


    Quote Originally Posted by Phil-D View Post
    “... strive for the illusion of perfection”
    A mandolin teacher (who was also a professional musician) once asked me why I grimaced occasionally during my solos, and I told him it was because of the clunkers I was hitting. He said that he hadn't heard any, and told me that a listener hears what you play, but can't compare that with what you intended to play. With music and with instruments apparently, the "illusion of perfection" is often preserved by the silence of those who create the imperfection.
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    not a donut Kevin Winn's Avatar
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    Default Re: The Myth of Perfection

    "Perfect" <> "Flawless"

    And context matters, too. An old broke-in pair of Levis is perfect for a Sunday afternoon at home, but not for a black-tie wedding reception. Similarly, not likely anyone here is going to drag a $125K Loar out to a wilderness camp site, but that $350 Eastman beater? Sure...
    "Keep your hat on, we may end up miles from here..." - Kurt Vonnegut

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    Registered User Nick Gellie's Avatar
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    Default Re: The Myth of Perfection

    I am just wondering if some of the Loar signed Gibsons can be regarded as the pinnacle of perfection in a mandolin if that is why they fetch so much spondoola by collectors and modern day musicians. Even some Stradivarius violins can be made to produce wolf notes. So what in essence is the perfection, perhaps redefined as excellence that so much of us are seeking these days. What is most important in this illusion of perfection: tone, playability, and looks. Does a flawless instrument have all three aspects and in spades? Perhaps beauty is in the eye of the beholder or one person's love is another person's poison. It is all relative what we see in beauty and what we see or seek in music.

    I must admit that when I see one of sunburst's F5 instruments they have panache and style and even exceed the looks of a Lloyd Loar signed F5. Maybe they play as well and sometimes if not better. Pinnacle of excellence perhaps after years of striving for the best.

    I wonder if Chris Thile could chime in and tell us why he found so much affinity with a Loar signed instrument and not a first class modern day builder.
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    Registered User Randi Gormley's Avatar
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    Default Re: The Myth of Perfection

    I think perfection is a moving target, and not necessarily one that moves in a line from concept to finished instrument. I think personal preference enters into it, and context, and history and age -- what would have been a perfect day when I was 16 isn't my perfect day when I'm 66. A meal I found perfect once has its own memory to contend with to continue its perfection another day. And a beautiful instrument I admire in a museum may not be perfect when I'm struggling to tune the thing on a humid day. A mandolin without obvious blemish or flaw only stays that way temporarily until the first accidental ding, the first time I do something dumb like put on bug spray and then touch a nitro finish. Another person may think that perfection comes with a scroll and points and a sunburst -- cosmetic options I'm not a big fan for. So all the work, the sweat and the attention to absolute detail by a creator of an attempted perfect F Loar-style mandolin isn't perfection for me, when I prefer an A-style, or find the imperfections of an instrument that has lived and been played far more appealing. That doesn't mean the artist hasn't striven for perfection, but that my definition of perfection is different from his/hers. Like I said, it's a moving target.

    I'm far more pragmatic than a lot of other people -- I like well-made things, but if it's something that is aesthetically pleasing to me, i don't mind a bit of imperfection. I buy a lot of fine crafts -- wood bowls, pottery, watercolor paintings, jewelry, weavings -- and I enjoy the imperfections as part of the art. Without the artist's eye, i can only go by what I have before me. Any of those artists/crafters could say their wares are not perfect and wonder how i could buy something not perfect. For me, function and my own taste come from a different place than that of the artist. S/he may find something imperfect -- to me, they fill a different function than just symmetry and flawless wood joins.
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    Default Re: The Myth of Perfection

    Personally I love imperfection and flaws? Hey to me there isn't anything that is pure perfection, instruments, humans etc...imperfection is life so embrace it, live it love it know it and enjoy it!

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    Default Re: The Myth of Perfection

    Or, the built in limitations of the instrument are what help produce a style. First learned about this through an old David Lindley interview in Guitar Player in the early 1980's. It's also where I first heard the term wabi-sabi. He pointed out the incredible music produced by folks who were using less than top of the line instruments. Whether it was off beat electric guitars or other instruments. And that has stuck with me.

    Of course, if the instrument allows you to reach the musical output you want, then I would argue that instrument is perfect for you. And construction or other points are secondary. But again, that's just my opinion. And maybe you have to be a good enough player to figure that out. I'm certainly not.
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    Default Re: The Myth of Perfection

    Perfection would be the ideal, but the best is the enemy of the good.
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