Countering Perfectionism

Mstislav Rostropovich

“You must play for the love of music. Perfect technique is not as important as making music from the heart.”
–Mstislav Rostropovich, cellist/conductor (The Musician’s Way, p. 133)

To practice music is to pursue perfection – or so we often hear.

What nonsense.

Rather, we musicians practice to grow as artists, to achieve excellence, and to share heartfelt music with our listeners.

Sure, public performance obliges us to be accurate. But there’s a big difference between precision and perfection.

Actually, when it comes to music, the notion of ‘perfection’ seems like an oxymoron. That is, we might perform without any noticeable flaws, but a musical phrase can’t be ‘perfectly’ expressive. Can it?

And no performance, no matter how profound, can ever be ‘perfect’ because artistic experience is necessarily subjective.

Worst of all, musicians who insist on unattainable perfection can sabotage their creativity and let loose torrents of negative emotions.

The Perfectionist Mindset
As an illustration, here’s singer and writer Shannon Sexton recounting how perfectionist convictions smothered her ability to perform (from Yoga International, Aug/Sept, 2004):

I was one of those paralyzed perfectionists—I didn’t want a soul to hear me sing until I had everything right, and that, I believed, would take at least a decade. Ironically, I was told that I had a beautiful voice. I won a vocal scholarship with no previous training and starred in operettas, musicals, recitals—but mostly, I thought I was awful . . .

No matter how much I rehearsed, I never felt ready for the stage. Instead, I felt like a deer stumbling into oncoming traffic on a dark road. The scene is the same every time: I blink at the blinding spotlights, the sea of faces beyond them—then the stage fright smashes into me like an 18-wheeler. My heart is a frantic drum; my belly, a riot of butterflies. My breath is caged and my mouth is full of sand. My limbs tremble like leaves; my hands quiver and my knees begin to quake.

Shannon epitomized the perfectionist belief that her work would never be good enough. As a result, she was rocked by performance nerves because, presumably, she imagined that her listeners would judge her as harshly as she judged herself.

Other characteristics of perfectionists may include all-or-nothing thinking (e.g., “If every note isn’t perfectly in tune, the performance will be ruined”), extreme sensitivity to criticism and mistakes, an exaggerated need for approval, the habitual setting of unrealistic goals and standards, a tendency to brood over past performances, and chronic procrastination.

Needless to say, such traits form a recipe for defeat rather than accomplishment.

Countering Perfectionism
To counter perfectionism, we first need to adopt a growth mindset, recognizing that musical problems can be overcome through learning and effort.

Then, as opposed to chasing after ‘perfection,’ we must set attainable goals, practice deeply, and strive for excellence.

Here are 7 tips that help aspiring musicians embody constructive work habits:

  1. Choose appropriate material and practice it regularly.
  2. Evaluate your playing or singing in balanced ways, acknowledging both successes and areas needing improvement.
  3. Treat errors as information and opportunities for learning instead of as failures.
  4. Seek feedback from fellow performers.
  5. Take your work seriously, yet also be playful and humane.
  6. Celebrate your imperfect humanity and the privilege of being able to make music with and for others.
  7. Merge technical accuracy with artistic expression to form a unified experience of music making.

Psychologists such as Robert W. Hill caution that most of us carry around both positive attitudes toward our work and also perfectionist ones that can scuttle creativity.

So, given the demands of professional-level music making, we all do well to take note of our perfectionist tendencies and replace them with productive actions.

For additional ways to attain musical excellence without getting mired in perfectionism, see the following sections of The Musician’s Way: “Fueling Motivation” (p. 105-109), “Committing to the Creative Process” (p. 109-112), “Dealing with Errors” (p. 190-196), “Boosting Creativity” (p. 309-314).

© 2010 Gerald Klickstein

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10 Responses to “Countering Perfectionism”

  1. jhon akers said:

    Apr 14, 10 at 14:32

    As usual, I appreciate your observations and suggestions. May I add that there is a wonderfully simple pre-performance practice of writing one’s thoughts down and exposing (re-writing) the exaggerated or misguided thinking that we are all guilty of, especially during those periods leading right up to a performance. It’s elaborated on in David Burn’s classic self-help book, “Feeling Good.” The written exercise can free us from the perfectionism pitfalls and have us enjoying the sharing of our music.

  2. Gerald Klickstein said:

    Apr 14, 10 at 14:38

    Terrific suggestion, Jhon. Thanks.

  3. Holly Manthey said:

    Jun 23, 12 at 19:30

    I found this on the eve of my 49th birthday, and about 3 years after [finally] deciding to take my love of music up a level and study voice seriously. I’m one of those who always felt I shouldn’t even THINK about opening my mouth in front of an audience until every note, phrase and tone was “perfect;” whatever the hell that even means. Thanks so much for for the suggestion that, “Perfect technique is not as important as making music from the heart.”

  4. Gerald Klickstein said:

    Jun 23, 12 at 20:54

    Thanks for the heartwarming comment, Holly, and happy birthday! Here’s wishing you great fun and success with your singing. You’ll find plenty of resources for singers in The Musician’s Way as well as on the For Singers page at MusiciansWay.com: http://www.musiciansway.com/forsingers.shtml

  5. Louise Montello said:

    Dec 04, 12 at 08:26

    Thanks Gerald for this very timely and important article on “perfectionism.” What I call “polarized perfectionism” (the attitude that either I’m perfect, or I’m a failure)is rampant among most conservatory students I have worked with for over twenty years, and in many professional musicians. In my therapy and coaching work with musicians I’ve found that for some people, perfectionism is not just an attitude but a way of life that sucks the joy out of our work and play. And it’s this very joy that the audience so wants to receive from our performance! Transforming this approach to life can take time, but it is so worth it. Please see my website for a few articles that can truly help in this process at
    http://www.performancewellness.org/articles.html

  6. Gerald Klickstein said:

    Dec 04, 12 at 08:47

    Hi Louise – Thanks for contributing, for sharing your expertise, and for posting the link to your insightful articles, which I hope that all members of The Musician’s Way community will read. Gerald

  7. Gary Stegall said:

    Dec 05, 12 at 08:57

    Gerald,

    Sviatoslav Richter left us pianists with a beautiful quote, one that applies across the board to all other instruments: “A truly great piano is one that enables you to convey deep emotion.” What is the technical practice of one’s instrument but the physical and emotional aspirations we strive for to reach that very end.

    Thank you for your thoughts,
    Gary Stegall

  8. Gerald Klickstein said:

    Dec 05, 12 at 11:28

    Beautifully said, Gary – thanks for contributing!

  9. josh said:

    Dec 09, 12 at 09:40

    This is not about classical playing. Until now I’ve not been able to play anything in front of anybody because of the fear of making a mistake. I always played from sheet music until I saw how it could only get you so far. Then I learned some jazz heavily improvised pieces just by figuring them out on the piano and to my great surprise I found myself doing my own improvising on these pieces. That would happen when I made a mistake or deviation from the original. Now I play much more freely experimenting around and hitting sour notes but I don’t care. I’ve come closer to knowing what music is. It’s the sound you produce and enjoy and not perfect reproduction of somebody elses composition.

  10. Gerald Klickstein said:

    Dec 09, 12 at 10:17

    Great to hear Josh! Congrats on overcoming your past performance jitters. Your use of improvisation to free yourself and conquer fear is a practice advocated by numerous performance coaches, including Dr. Louise Montello, who also commented on this post. Thanks for sharing!