Ritual of PreparationDec 04, 2023
The smell of the polish, the feel of the wood; after all these years it still brings me pleasure and no small amount of comfort to perform my ritual of preparation before I step on a stage or hit the record button.
It began as a necessity - new strings before a performance or studio session - but it has come to mean much more than that.
Meaningful creation is art, and artists work at their crafts. And that work includes practice. The practice of practice lasts a creative lifetime. The many tens of thousands of hours spent in pursuit of competence, then excellence, is a standard part of the artist’s routine. While it is always gratifying to see progress, there is nothing particularly special about it.
A Reason to Celebrate
That’s why a ritual of preparation is so important. The liminal period immediately before a performance represents an event horizon; a rubicon beyond which no further preparation is possible. The downbeat, the swing of the conductor’s baton, the red light in the control booth: it’s go time, baby! The preparation will either now be sufficient, or it won’t.
To go mindlessly from preparation to performance is to miss out on a great achievement. The fact that you are ready to do the thing is itself a milestone, regardless of the eventual outcome. You owe it to yourself to spend a moment in celebration of the myriad decisions and countless hours of practice and preparation it took to get here.
And so it came to pass that the act of preparing my instrument (usually a guitar) became a holy moment. Out with the old strings, condition the fretboard, carefully fit the new strings, set the neck relief and intonation, polish the wood, check the nuts and bolts and electronics. I now complete this pedestrian-yet-necessary set of behaviors with great reverence.
The final pre-performance act represents freedom and (hopefully) a state of readiness. For me, it is also fraught with anxiety, second only to the last few moments preceding the actual performance. There is no longer a need to read and analyze and memorize and practice. There is also nothing that will redeem you now, save the focus you bring to the execution of the piece.
The Ritual is For All
The transition is perhaps most easily understood before a live performance, and all musicians, dancers, actors, and stand-up comics know the feeling. The experience is schizoid: there is a quiet person who labors in solitude to write (or learn) the material, master the craft, prepare for the performance. Then comes the archetype of the performer; energetic, “on,” and present with enough energy to transmit the desired intellectual and emotional content to the audience. In this manner, every performer assumes the mantle of the ambivert. The introvert withstands the quiet hours of lonely preparation, and the extravert hammers home the performance.
But the space between preparation and presentation exists for all artists, and by extension, all creators. Every writer knows the tension and elation of the moment just before the “submit” button is pressed. Every painter feels the butterflies in the last seconds before the work is revealed to the public.
Digital creators experience the release/tension of the moment their work is posted.
There is always a moment of completion between creation and presentation, regardless of the medium. This moment is the time for the celebratory ritual of preparation, no matter how brief.
Is It Time?
Several years ago, over a cup of production-break tea in LA’s The Village Studios, I asked Alan Parsons how to tell when the mix of a particular song was finished. I somehow always found ever-more minute tweaks that could be done; a change of compression ratio here, a dollop of parametric equalization there. Without hesitation, he invoked Paul Valéry: “A mix is never finished, only abandoned.”
Those seven words from a great mentor and iconic artist put the last nail in the coffin of perfectionism for me. There is always something more that can be done to our nascent creation before we shove it out of the nest. But more often than not, the urge we ascribe to “perfection” is really just fear in disguise.
Is it good enough? Will they like it? Will it be an artistic success? A commercial success? Am I good enough? Hell, should I even be doing this? Is it too late to go back to my day job?
What better way to stave off the existential angst of the unknown than to simply say, “It’s not quite ready yet.”
Ritual of Preparation
And this monumental challenge, perhaps more than any other factor, is the raison d’être for the Ritual of Preparation. The Ritual commemorates not only the transition between preparation and performance, but also the realization that the work is good enough. Perfection is an anxious smoke screen of procrastination for the artist and creator. Do your realistic best, perform your own ritual of preparation, then bless your creation and release it into the waiting arms of a public who needs it.
You may find, like me, that you have developed your own ritual of preparation without even becoming aware of it. If not - create one! You are a creator, after all.
Dance a post-creation dance or have a “good enough” cup of tea. Take a drive or a walk and immerse yourself in the incomprehensible mystery of THE creation as a way to commemorate the the work you have accomplished. Then let it go.
And start all over again, tomorrow.
I am a creator (musician, writer, live-streamer and podcaster), entrepreneur, counselor and professor. To learn more about how to use these concepts or to inquire about working with me, you can contact me through my website, the comments section on my Substack or Medium accounts or The Authentic Life Blog page. If you have found value in this article, consider following my Instagram and Twitter (now called X) accounts. To support this community, you can even Buy Me A Coffee or donate through my Patreon account. Subscribe to my River of Creation podcast - The Podcast for Creators, and my associated YouTube channel, coming in 2024, wherever you download your podcasts.
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