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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