Quality vs Quantity

Though we all know their conceptual differences well, I have long struggled with the practical difference between quality and quantity. It’s an honest struggle, really, as I have always worked toward the highest quality I could muster, while usually succumbing to the cheaper, easier satisfaction of producing quantity instead.

You see, my addiction comes from needing the personal satisfaction that comes with accomplishing a thing. That in itself is not a problem; the problem arises with the constant need to complete things and feel the satisfaction that comes from that completion. Probably, in some weird way, I associate quantity as some sort of success in itself, which is not a good thing. Needing quantity over quality suggests a lack of patience. I have plenty of patience, usually, but artistic patience, musical patience, is not my forte.

Perhaps that lack of musical patience comes from years of meeting the often ridiculous deadlines for writing and recording jingles for ad agencies. So many times I was forced to take my first idea and develop it the best I could. The reason I think that became a habit is that it was virtually always successful… my first musical instinct turned out to easily be enough to satisfy my clients. I have to think that if my clients would have/could have been more discerning, I would have gone back to the drawing board and dug deeper into my musical assignment, thereby beginning the better habit of reaching deeper into a project, finding the higher quality of idea, then developing that, rather than running with first instinct to please the great god of “finishing on time.”

And it’s funny, perhaps a touch ironic. For even as I write this, I realize I’m still the victim of this need for quantity. There very well might be no worthwhile blog post in this rambling, save for one short paragraph asserting my belief in quality over quantity. But obviously my quantity devil has easily overcome my quality angel and here I am again, typing away damn near as fast as I can think… which is not a good thing to admit to anyone.

As long as we’re rambling here…

Even though I was basically a self-employed musician and composer all my life, still the blasted deadline ruled my efforts to a large extent, as most of my work was for others on a per job basis. Probably I did my best composing and performing on my own clock, often after 6 p.m. when the world around me went quiet and no deadline loomed. At those precious times, my creative mind was free to play with and develop musical thoughts that were not squashed by a deadline and served no end result other than to satisfy their own need to emerge into the tangible realm.

That idea, and those special, precious times, are probably the meat and potatoes of what all artists strive for. Within that creative frame of “all the time one needs to complete, to their satisfaction, their work of art,” whatever it might be, is freedom! Yes, that delicious freedom that allows one to reject an idea, a direction, and continue to try to develop a better one. That magical time, that time when we tinker and tweak an idea is a most private, special and intimate space that discards time itself and usually leaves us floating in its creative dust. Yes, it’s heady stuff, with a touch of danger attached, as with the time to do our very best, we usually discover our limits in the process. That in itself can be a disturbing, if not an enlightening, discovery.

One of the many differences between quality and quantity lies in our individual perception of them. Quantity is far more tangible and in that, more universally recognizable than is quality, which is often less tangible and far more subjective. While many of us can mostly agree on what is high quality and what is not, still our individual and personal tastes ultimately define what we consider to be high quality, and often that can vary widely. Too many times the consumer price of a work of art of any kind will define, for us, its worth, its degree of quality. And that is a shame, for someone’s perceived concept of an artistic piece of any kind usually ultimately guides our perception of its quality. We should resist that temptation, but admittedly it’s not easy to do. How many times do we turn away from a piece we love because it is simply priced too high? And along with that, we do occasionally “steal” a piece that we love.

I’m blessed with quite a few artist friends – painters, woodworkers, graphic artists, musicians and writers. Of course I perceive all their various works to be of very high quality, but I would guess their amount of patience with each work varies, as does mine.  I would guess there is a correlation between high quality and good patience. Hell, there has to be! Think of the craftsmen over the centuries who persevered, who refused to rush their craft, their art.

Jack Waller in his shop

The one artist I know for sure who displays great patience with each new project is Jack Waller. A Montana man of many skills, his woodworking skills are unique in this world of mass production. He makes furniture pieces… tables, chairs, floor lamps and benches. Over the years that I watched him work in his shop, what kept popping out at me was his incredible patience to get everything just right, while always with an eye for what the wood itself wanted to do, where it wanted to go. He could easily spend hours on one task, whether it was cutting, gluing, fitting, sanding or polishing… his patience with each process was undeniable.

I have watched him numerous times, lovingly working his wooden subject into the artistic piece he imagined it to be. He would occasionally get frustrated with something, sure. But his unending patience to stick with a process until it was just right, is my primary memory of his work ethic. And I use the word “work” in the sense of a task wanting to be done rather than a task needing to be done. Here are a few examples of Jack’s fabulous work.

At Jack’s cabin, surrounded b y his incredible art

I doubt the even the concept of a deadline, or of quantity as opposed to quality, ever even occurred to Jack. And I so respect that aspect of the pure artist within him. Along with that comes the desire to finish a piece for its own sake, rather than for the money it might bring later on. That… is a whole ‘nother topic.

Quality was always first on my agenda to do a thing, but as often as not the dreaded quantity crept in and somehow thwarted my attempt at quality. Finally however, my desire for quality has won over, even if I had to “kill” that sickly desire for quantity within me. it was easy enough, actually. Without a deadline on anything I set out to do or produce now, the end result of quality only keeps my focus, I have to admit that it did not come about from any inner depth of wisdom, but probably the natural result of aging and the luxury of time when one is finally retired.

I shared this thought with a dear friend the other day – “I’m sure my verbosity comes from all the years of putting at least a little of myself into all my music pieces. In music, a few right notes can say so much about a person, a place, an emotion… but for me, it takes too many words to properly express myself, and it’s likely that I won’t live long enough to learn to communicate, with words, a thing with the same simplicity I was able to with music.” And so, somewhat sadly, I have to admit that I’ve been long driven by quantity to try to produce quality, and that has to be an oxymoron of some kind. You might ask at this point, “So, Hulse, would it be fair to say that you are, basically, a living, breathing oxymoron?”

Sigh. “Yes.”

Steve Hulse


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