Last week, I set some pretty big goals for 2012.  They may be ambitious, but I’d rather set new lifestyle goals – habits to build into my everyday life and work – than set temporary points of achievement that can simply be crossed off my list (i.e. finish reading the book on my nightstand).  Excellence is one of those lifestyle goals.

It’s one of those things that people talk about in an idealistic, undefinable sort of way.  Sometimes, it is equated with perfection; other times, it is described as a blissful moment of achievement and arrival.  While in music school, excellence was constantly at the forefront of my mind.  It was the expectation of my studio teachers.  It was the ideal quality of every performance.  It was the satisfaction of progress and success.  But still I struggled to define it.  After years of chasing the idealistic, undefinable form of excellence, I wanted more.

“We are what we repeatedly do.  Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” -Aristotle.  As a lifestyle, I want to re-commit to excellence every day.  I want to practice excellence in the dish-washing, piano-teaching, laundry-folding, house-cleaning, course-writing, bulletin-proofing moments of life.  In pursuing this goal in my own life, these things stand true:

- Excellence is a standard I set for myself, not based on others. - It’s the pursuit of high, artistic quality and the commitment to be the best I can be. - It is a commitment to invest myself fully in whatever I am doing (one.thing.at.a.time). - Along with that, it’s the simplification of what I do.  It requires me to re-focus my priorities and choose to do better at less rather than be mediocre at more (and live a life of grace). - It is the challenge of artistry. - Excellence is my measure of success.

Several years ago, I spent 7 months taking piano lessons from Louise Barfield.  I was finishing my bachelor’s degree at the time and preparing for grad school auditions.  After that first 2-hour lesson on a hot, summer afternoon and not making it past my scales, I knew I had my work cut out for me.  Mediocrity and middle-of-the-road standards were not going to fly.  Truth be told, I didn’t think I could be anything more.  One day, Louise said, “You can be as great as you want to be.  You just have to set your mind to it.”  I confess now that I didn’t wholeheartedly believe her.  Everyone can’t just go out there and be exactly what they want to be. . .or can they?  Together, we set ambitious goals.  I practiced more than I had in my life.  I drove two hours each way – twice a week – for 2-hour lessons.  I set my sights on getting into Eastman‘s Accompanying Program.  In February of 2008, I flew up to Rochester, NY, took an audition with the head of the department, and in a dream-come-true whirlwind was offered acceptance a few short weeks later.

Some may say that excellence is an arrival point – that Friday night phone call from the Director of Admissions – but for me, excellence is the journey – the months of dedicated, passionate work; the frustration, the tears, and the joy; the responsibility to myself to truly be the best I could be – that is the pursuit of excellence.  I didn’t know this at the time but Louise did.  Never before had someone had such faith in me and the determination to make me recognize my own potential.

Excellence is the journey.