Imperfect Pitch

perfect pitch perfectionism Apr 15, 2022

How do you know if someone has perfect pitch? They tell you.

This joke shines a spotlight on the stereotypical image of the Hermione Grangers of the musical world: those with perfect pitch. They are seen as know-it-alls, people who delight in being right all the time. Because they can perfectly pull any specific pitch out of the air without help, they are the embodiment of perfection.

Or so they seem to think.

I used to be that person. I reveled in my auditory superiority, especially when I was tapped by conductors to give the starting pitch in a cappella pieces. Like a middle school hall monitor, I took that responsibility far too seriously.

I've been the jerk in the choir who sang the correct note even though it was out of tune with the rest of the choir. I've contorted my face at the conductor or the other singers. I've tried to shift my body in some vain attempt to physically move the pitch to where it needs to be.

None of that works, unsurprisingly.

The truth is, tuning within a choir is the responsibility of all the members of the choir, not just one individual. It's a collective effort that requires deep listening, trust, and technical skill.

When any one of the individuals in the collective thinks their way is the "right" way, they start singing louder…and when they start singing louder, they stop listening. They stop trusting the people around them. And, what many people don't realize, especially in the moment: their technique suffers.

This analogy can be carried through to pretty much any community experience, from board rooms to town halls. When any one of us is convinced that we are right and the others are wrong, we stop listening, we stop trusting others, and we ourselves are out of tune from the rest of the group.

As a (recovering) perfectionist, it's been difficult for me to let go of the idea of being right. Especially when I know I have perfect pitch. It's right there in the name! PERFECT.

Some years ago, I was singing in a gig and the choir began to go flat.

I steeled my body for what was inevitably going to be an aural fight with the alto section, when suddenly, a flurry of thoughts popped into my head.

It's impossible to control other people. These people are going to go flat no matter what I do. The only things within my own control are my thoughts and actions.

I could choose to get frustrated and bothered and bitter, singing louder and louder, hoping that the people around me would realize that I'm right…or I could let it all go, sing the best I could, and focus on making the best music possible.

I'd never considered that I had a choice.

Curious, I decided to simply sing with as much musicality as I could without trying to control everyone around me. The pitch around me dropped, and I went with the flow. Sure, we were flat, but we were still in tune with each other, so it wasn't that big a deal.

I was enjoying the music much more than I had ever been able to do. I found delight in phrases I hadn't even noticed before.

The collective imperfection was so much better than my own conviction of the "right" note. By consciously choosing to loosen the reins, I get to delight in my art in a way that I never could before.

Now, when people ask, I tell them I have mostly perfect pitch.

"Nobody is perfect," I tell them with a smile.

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