July 8, 2012 by Willy Cardoso

When I studied music in São Paulo, I had a flatmate who only played in his bedroom. He was actually good, I didn’t like his music but technically speaking he was ages ahead of me. Myself, as you can imagine, didn’t like to study from musical scores and all that. Instead, I made sure I joined a band as soon as I learned what an arpeggio was (not that I could really play one, but I knew what it was).

Anyway, I used to tell my flatmate to go out and play. And he always replied, I’m not ready, I have to study more. Oh boy, and I had to hear him next door playing arpeggios in heavy metal style following a super fast metronome until he felt good enough to play in public (?). 🙂

Practice makes it perfect, they say.  Alright, granted. But experience makes it real.

As far as practice goes, I actually did rehearse a lot with my band. In fact, I thought my band over-rehearsed. Nonetheless, the main difference between rehearsing with a band and playing in my bedroom was that I was not alone with the band (ok, now this is a very obvious comment! But here is where we start to draw a parallel between doing music and doing learning). As a band, we had to negotiate meaning:  in order to find the best beat, the best key, synchronize harmony, etc. All that to make what we wanted to say the best we could, i.e. we couldn’t make it alone.

Creating and rehearsing a new song was a dialogic experience.

A conversation – between guitar, drums and bass – in which the history of those three people were voiced through their instruments, conversing with one another to find their space and to give space, making sense only in co-existence to create something greater than their parts in isolation. 

I learned more about music and became a better musician by playing our own music in late night gigs in the underground joints of Sao Paulo than by going to the music school to play someone else’s music off a sheet chosen by the teacher. I did, however, learn a lot by playing the songs I wanted to play, by my favorite artists. For me, I’ve come to realize that:

who makes the decisions is as important as what decisions have been made.

If teachers had encouraged me to create music more than to copy it, perhaps the experience would’ve been better. If my teachers had listened to my record and given feedback and all, perhaps it would’ve been better than only testing my accuracy playing some music I didn’t like; and testing my theoretical knowledge of music regardless of what I could actually play/perform.


Perhaps, the best part of going to music school was the social one. Meeting people was great (N.B. meeting was great, not people). There were two amazing guys, whom I played with in the early days and I’m sure I learned more from them than from any teacher I had. They played with me (there was dialogue), whereas teachers told me what was right to do (right for them). Apart from these two guys, there were two or three other interesting people and that was it. Other folks I met served only to show me what kind of people I didn’t want to relate to. … Just kidding…, they were not so bad. But my point is, the social element is very important in learning, we know it already, but social doesn’t mean making friends and being nice. For me the social helps me see things and see myself better:

self-awareness is situated in the social plane.

In the reflective process of my musical trajectory I was able to see very attentively the actors who influenced my style. If it weren’t for others, that would be no self-development. I liked to think I played music for myself, for my own entertainment and therapy first; but I played it for others just as much, even in the confines of my safe bedroom. There were always an other who I projected as my listener: the girl I wanted to impress, the teacher I wanted to please, the crowd I imagined would listen to me one day – and they all influenced the way I played.

In the end, I dropped out of music school with half the creative power I had when I started it. But at least I learnt very fast that if I wanted to be good at something, I needed to go out and do it as soon as possible. Unlike my flatmate, I could not wait until I was perfect.

Imperfect at the beginning – maybe imperfect forever – it doesn’t matter. Reflection, dialog, and a critical approach to life in general little by little shapes the self you ought to be; and then you find that there are not anymore the perfect/imperfect labels. When the story you enjoy the most is your own… …

I spent the last 8 years without making music I could call mine. Firstly, I just didn’t feel satisfied with what I was  making, and then I just simply wasn’t creative anymore, I had lost it. I played other people’s music but didn’t make my own anymore. I don’t know, but maybe I wanted my music to be perfect.

Then something extraordinary happen a couple of weeks ago. I recorded a song to my brother, as a gift for his birthday – I made it and I felt it, deeply.

I called it Imperfeito (Portuguese for imperfect).


I’ve been very musical since then. Imperfectly musical.


11 thoughts on “Imperfect

  1. […] by Simon Thomas Willy C Cardoso makes an analogy between ELT and learning to make music in his interesting article on the value of accepting imperfection in language learning.Share this post:Bookmark on DeliciousDigg this postRecommend on FacebookGoogle Buzz-up this […]

  2. Simon Thomas says:

    Thanks, Willy, for another excellent post!

    I wonder to what extent playing the music of others depends on how that music is presented to you, and how you receive it (i.e., as something alien to be learnt or assimilated, or as an exposure to more musical options, like extra colours on an artist’s palette, or different brushes or drawing materials, which are to be experimented with to see what effects they can produce, and thereby made one’s own, as one judges their appropriacy and usefulness for oneself). That is, do you think encouragement to think critically and independently about the materials presented to them could help learners (of course, including language learners!) develop their skills even when they have less choice over what materials are used and talked about (for example, in language classes of two or more learners, who may have dissimilar interests and needs, and therefore request and require different inputs, skills-work and resources)?

    All best wishes


    • Hi Simon,
      thanks for commmenting, and sorry for the delayed reply.

      answering your question: Yes, I think so, but I can’t prove it (yet) 🙂 I think that more than anything learning to be critical about materials and autonomous with their use will give students more opportunities to construct (or co-construct if you prefer) their learning in ways that once they’re outside classroom, they can still carry on learning. And still when in class, by being acknowledged as an important decision-maker, students become more empowered; therefore, their education becomes more democratic.
      Well, it sounds good in theory, but we know in practice there are many other problems to consider. However, there are small things we can do in classroom routine that will work pretty well in this regard. E.g. I often let my EFL students choose the unit they want to work on based firstly on topics they want to discuss and secondly on the skills they want to improve. This way, I kill two birds… I get rid of old-fashioned grammar-led syllabus and give them autonomy to make decisions as important as this.

      • Simon Thomas says:

        Hi Willy

        Thanks a lot for your reply.

        Boringly for you, I totally agree re handing over control of topics and language points/skills work to the learners; when there is disagreement, I usually make this known, and agree that week’s or fortnight’s timetable with the class – that way, I can try and ensure all students’ needs are met, as well as reinforcing the notion of compromise (they may have to be patient, so that everyone can choose a topic). If there’s really strong disagreement, the more minority topics could be turned into presentations for the class by the interested student, and so on. It’s not perfect (it’s a compromise after all), but it generally seems to work pretty well.

        I didn’t realise you’d attached the music you wrote for your brother’s birthday – it’s lovely!

        Thanks again for sharing all this – here’s a link to a song by my brother, by way of reciprocation:

        All best wishes


      • Simon Thomas says:

        Sorry – when I say “topics” I mean “topics or tasks”.


  3. phil wade says:

    Very nice Willy. I could’ve done with another 10 mins of that? I was just expecting a drummer to kick in and some Marshall’s to crank up.

    Yep. Been here/there. I bought the tab books, spent hours learning them, observing fretboards, copying, then taking lessons which consisted of hours reading more tab and following a stupid ‘click click’. Meanwhile my mates were outside twiddling like Van Halen.

    I think for me it was confidence. I never had it but all the greats did. all the greats may have started off doing covers or in backing bands but they always seemed to have their own sound. even Jimmy P who was a session guitarist and on loads of records. Learning by ear and picking stuff up seems to be how they learned and they also played around. The early live Zep and Hendrix gigs were great as you could hear them mashing stuff up.

    You can never be as good as other people as you aren’t them so you should do your own thing and become as good as you can be. This is teaching in a nutshell. when I was learning all those stupid scales and trying to copying every bend or hammer-on mechanically someone else was playing round and enjoying themselves naturally, doing it with feeling. I lived in the hope that one day I’d get it but my head just got so full of all these things that it got in the way of playing and stopped any creativity. Same for teaching.

    For many types of art there are those that study in the hope of breaking down and emulating greats and then there are the greats who do their own thing. The might not be appreciated now but later or never at all but if it works for them, what the heck!

    • I really enjoyed reading your comment, Phil!

      Is it time we all come to terms with the fact that teaching is more art than anything else?

      When i started playing, my cousin, who was already a great musician, told me to always play with the best, meaning with people better than myself. Until I found these people, I played with Kurt Cobain and other grunges; well… with their records, and I learned loads. But as you said, I could never be as good or as bad as them, so all I could do was to find my style; and find what I could do well and with joy. A hard task!

  4. davedodgson says:

    I wonder to what extent your former flatmate was influenced in his preferred method of learning guitar by his formal education experiences…. Most of the musicians I know learned as you did by playing in groups and with other people the majority of the time. I don’t play anything these days and was never that good when I did but when playing in a group, we definitely found that the whole was greater than the sum of the parts.

    Your description of flatmate also made me think of the times I have heard people say studying grammar is vital and is the equivalent of learning musical scales – a good answer to that perhaps 🙂

    • it’s relative
      I didn’t “need” to learn scales so badly. My brother, on the other hand, had to since he studied to become a classic guitar player, music teacher, etc, having to write scores and arrangements, etc.
      The same way we had to learn aspects of the English grammar that most people can’t care less about.
      For me, it’s more like using the “where you want to be” with this thing you’re studying now and use that to lay your study path, instead of having one single common goal for everyone.

  5. David Warr says:

    Hi Willy, as Phil said, could have listened to your piece for a long time. Hope your brother enjoyed it as much as us. I hope you don’t mind, I’ve added a blog post I wrote some time ago. I felt there were parallels between it and your very moving piece here. Till next time…

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