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Vulnerability in “Etude of the Week”

I recently joined the online group, “Etude of the Week.” I joined partly because I have friends in the group and it’s fun to share music with them, and partly because I’m having a serious case of pandemic-related low motivation and needed something to give me a weekly goal - even just one etude. For those unfamiliar with EOTW, it’s a private online group for flutists where everyone votes on an etude book and then posts a video of themselves playing one etude per week until the book is finished - rinse and repeat. It’s sort of a continuation of studio class, but mostly it's a way to keep etudes a part of your practice routine and to draw inspiration, support, and accountability from other flutists, near and far, of all levels. I have been extremely impressed by the dedication of the group members and the level of support for others’ willingness to show up, challenge themselves, and put something into the world.

One common thread I’ve noticed among flutists of all levels is a tendency to preface posts with a note about how vulnerable they feel posting works in progress, or recordings that aren’t completely polished and rehearsed. I appreciate this honesty, because I feel it too, and sometimes seeing others acknowledge their own discomfort is what gives me the confidence to submit my own imperfect recording. Sometimes, in my weaker moments, I get paranoid and think people are prefacing their posts with false claims of vulnerability when they have, in fact, shared an impeccable recording. Then I consider that perhaps they feel the same way I do - that they practiced and their recording still isn’t what they imagined it would be, or that, like most musicians, they feel the need to apologize for “mistakes” that others simply don’t notice or don’t care about. We are all our own worst critics.

As someone with professional training, I feel that my public output needs to be at a certain level of perfection - especially when it is immortalized on the internet for all to see. But getting bogged down in the perfection of a recording can also be draining. Fretting over the vibrato on one note or the evenness of a single group of sixteenth notes might be worth re-recording for an album, but not for a weekly etude. Last week, for example, I made about 10 recordings of a single etude, none I deemed ”good enough” to post online. I set it aside with the intention of re-recording and finally decided, after a few days of not wanting to read the etude again because it was stressing me out, to just post one of the first recordings I made. And you know what? It was really liberating. I realized that given my current level of motivation, it was unrealistic (obviously! come on, Liz) to expect an album quality recording in just a few days. Focusing so much on the perfection of the recording also ruined an etude that I otherwise enjoyed - I came to resent it because I couldn’t “get it right.” I had joined this group for motivation and now I was avoiding it because it reminded me that I hadn’t yet posted. When I finally did, it allowed me to both move on to the next etude (wahoo!) and fully appreciate the vulnerability and musicality of all the other versions that had been posted throughout the week. Like so many others, my weekly challenge is not just to play an etude, but to practice letting go and being more vulnerable than I’m comfortable with. After all, isn’t discomfort a necessary ingredient for growth?

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