-by Kari Miller Magg
I have recently become aware of the term wabi sabi. Difficult to translate, it refers to a Japanese world view which is based on acceptance of the imperfect and transient nature of things, an aesthetic which finds beauty in things that are flawed, incomplete and impermanent. I’ve seen quite a few books recently which apply the concepts of wabi sabi to everything from home decorating to relation- ships, as well as art. It immediately struck me that cultivating a wabi sabi attitude could be a very good thing for an organist or church musician, though it may seem to run counter to much we have been taught.
From our first lessons, most of us are taught that we should play ‘perfectly’, and we spend the rest of our musical lives developing and honing our vision of what this means. But at some point we must realize that whatever our vision of perfection, it is an elusive, unattainable goal. Jascha Heifetz, certainly one of the most ‘perfect’ of players, said: “There is no such thing as perfection. You establish a standard and then you find out it is never good enough. When I play a piece well, I always hope I’ll play it better tomorrow”. The wisdom of wabi sabi might say that focusing too narrowly on perfection, forever chasing down the ‘perfect’ performance (or choir, or organ) holds the danger of blinding us to the humble beauties and richness of what is at hand.
And who among us doesn’t sometimes feel the fleeting nature of music as a bitter pill to swallow? How satisfying it would be, after all our labors, to hold on to those special moments – to be able to examine, enjoy and share them at our leisure. Obviously, many musicians try very hard to document their achievements (take a browse on YouTube!), but music performance remains an ephemeral art – no matter what advances are made in recording technology, there will always be something in the live rendition that eludes ‘capture’. With a wabi sabi attitude, perhaps we could feel this as a joy, as liberation – each performance can be a truly one-of-a-kind experience with its own particular beauties and flaws, triumphs and shortcomings; impermanent and imperfect but infinitely more meaningful than just one more joust at the impossible dream of perfection.
We should never give up the lofty aspirations and standards which motivate and inspire us, but it is vitally important that we also learn to accept ourselves and come to terms with our imperfection. Yes, aim for your current, highest vision of perfection – but know you won’t achieve it, and don’t beat yourself up over it. Enjoy the quest, take pleasure in the journey, celebrate those moments of unexpected grace along the way. Call it living in the moment, call it humility, call it being realistic, or, go ahead – call it wabi sabi.