And why you need to let go of perfectionism
During my studies at the G. Verdi Conservatory, in Milan, I heard Yehudi Menuhin live in ‘La Scala’. He played the Beethoven concerto and well… it wasn’t perfect. Actually not even near perfect. The opening octaves were spectacularly out of tune and so was a lot of the rest.
Still that concert stuck in my memory as one of the musical highlights of my life. And certainly not because of those imperfections.
What made that concert one of the experiences of my life, was the magic Menuhin created in the beautiful phrase at the end of the first movement, just after the cadenza.
So out of this world, so stunning… so full of grace and beauty that I not only remember it vividly still, but every time I remember it I get goose bumps.
Many years later. And believe you me when I say m a n y ;-)
ONE phrase made my experience more than worth it.
Needless to say, as soon as I had the chance, I went to have lessons from him. It struck me that he still had young, sparkly eyes at his advanced age. That totally lit up when listening to and talking about music…‘jolly good’ he kept saying, with his smiley eyes.
Why is it then that we give so much importance to perfection?
Spoiler alert: the answer might not be what you are thinking …
About importance, perfection and excellence.
Of course we strive for excellence, but perfectionism, unfortunately, doesn’t help us get there.
“There’s a difference between excellence and perfection,” explains Miriam Adderholdt, a psychology instructor at Davidson Community College in Lexington, North Carolina, and author of Perfectionism: What’s Bad About Being Too Good?
- “Excellence involves enjoying what you’re doing, feeling good about what you’ve learned, and developing confidence.
- Perfection involves feeling bad about a 98 and always finding mistakes no matter how well you’re doing.1
The problem with perfection. Perfectionism is a learned behaviour. Parents’ or early educators’ excessive criticism, implying that affection or approval is conditional on good performance, teaches the child that only being perfect will make them worthy and loved. We then keep that pattern alive by internalizing it and keeping that active.
Thinking we are not good enough just as we are, we believe that being flawless is the only way to somehow catch up.
The pursue of perfection is then nothing more than a disguise for our insecurity, a compensation for a sense of inadequacy.
The incessant worry about mistakes, undermines performance, say Canadian psychologists Gordon L. Flett and Paul L. Hewitt. They studied the debilitating effects on athletes of anxiety over perfect performance.1
According to research, perfectionism is not even good for our health. “Perfectionism as a personality trait is a strong correlate to performance anxiety. It is also linked to other maladaptive behaviors such as procrastination and eating disorders, and even suicide.” (Flett, Hewitt, & Heisel, 2014) When a perfectionist mentality does in fact drive musicians to practice a lot to develop their skills, I’d suspect the passion is of the obsessive — rather than harmonious — orientation, which can come with feelings of guilt and anger, and a general lack of satisfaction with one’s musical life.” 2
According to Dr. Brené Brown, research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, perfectionism is not about striving for excellence, it is the ultimate fear: “It’s… a way of thinking and feeling that says this: ‘If I look perfect, do it perfect, work perfect and live perfect, I can avoid or minimize shame, blame and judgment.” “…People who are walking around as perfectionists… They are ultimately afraid that the world is going to see them for who they really are and they won’t measure up.” “There’s no question, I call perfectionism ‘the 20-ton shield.’ We carry it around thinking it’s going to protect us from being hurt. But it protects us from being seen.” 3
Perfection in Music
The very notion of perfection seems weird when applied to music. In sports it is easier to determine perfection: a ball is in or out, the scores are clear. In music it is not that straightforward, aside from the simplistic idea of getting all the right notes as written in the score.
But can a musical phrase be ‘perfectly’ expressive? Probably not, as artistic experience is subjective. Fortunately. It would be very boring otherwise.
I don’t intend to encourage an anything goes attitude: ‘I don’t mind mistakes, ‘cause I am musical’. That is not my point, at all. Only raising the question that maybe we do give too much importance to mechanical perfection, while neglecting the things that actually will make a performance memorable.
Good news: these same things will actually help you achieve your best possible results.
What makes a performance memorable?
As in my opening example, it has little relation to the perfection of the mechanics. Imagine the same difference between the synthetic look, and taste, of a supermarket apple, and the honest, authentic flavor, although scuffed looking, of an organic one.
The secret lies in the sincerity, authenticity and quality of the performer’s contribution in the moment. How we manage to re-create music. To bring it alive. To stir up emotions and ignite the imagination of the listener. Only then you will offer an unforgettable experience to your audience.
Shouldn’t we be more concerned with authenticity then perfection then?
“What Dr. Brown learned about authenticity through her research turned out to surprise even her. “I thought going into it that there were authentic people and inauthentic people. I did not find any evidence of that at all,” she tells Oprah in this video:
“What I found is authenticity is a practice and you choose it every day — sometimes every hour of every day.” In order to make that authentic choice, however, Dr. Brown says that you must be willing and able to let go of what other people think.” 3.
You see, the funny thing is, the more you dare to be your authentic self, to be centered and immersed in the moment, the more likely you are to get a glimpse of perfection.
For the closest thing to perfection is the ability to be fully present.
What do to: 3 steps
1) Stop the constant self-evaluation
It is impossible to think two thoughts at the same time. Every time you measure or judge yourself, you are missing on a better and healthier choice. If most of your thoughts are self-critical, you are making that script your life. (See how to change that.)
Make connecting with your passion and connecting with your audience your priority, also in the practice room.
2) Know when and how to evaluate
Resist evaluating while playing, if you have time for that… you are not in the moment…
Record yourself and after you have listened ask yourself:
‘Am I happy with it?’
‘What can I do differently next time?’
Praise your efforts, not the results. This will help the brain generate positive mood states, and subdue negative ones.
one thing that went well
one that improved
a great effort
3) Practice Authenticity
Let go of control. Dare to be vulnerable and show who you are. Watch a beautiful picture, or any other thing that won’t switch your perfectionism attitude on. How much pleasure do you experience? Now try an activity, playing let’s say, that will switch your perfectionism on. How much pleasure do you get from it?
Ask yourself: if a friend of yours whom you know to be a good player misses a note, do you think less of him?
Change the way you think about mistakes. They’re something to learn from, an opportunity for improvement, not a fixed outcome. It’s a sign you haven’t perhaps yet found the right approach.
Give attention and time to developing as a human being, not only as a musician. Read poetry. Visit museums and exhibitions. Research all you can on the piece and author you are working on. What was going on at the time, what is the historical, cultural and social context. Which other artists, also from other disciplines, were active then? Can you see influences of that in the music? Which ideas and emotions are been conveyed by the composer? According to the historical setting, which would be the best way to express them? How can you combine this information with your own experiences, to create your own rendition?
Take time for introspection. In performance we can only reflect who we are. To genuinely express feelings you need to get in contact with them and experience them. Be aware of possible blocks and research why they are there.
Be aware of ‘fake postures’ while playing.
Play something you are totally comfortable with.
Register how it feels in your body.
Now try the challenging piece: does the body feel the same way?…what is different?…you are possibly trying to ‘be’ somebody else…a teacher…a soloist you admire…as helpful as all that may be, it will only hinder you unless you make it your own. Your body can help you find the way for that. Follow the kinesthetic feeling.
Performing isn’t about the acrobatics: it’s staying in the moment, connecting with the audience in an authentic way.
As my teacher Philippe Hirshhorn used to say: “If there was ONE note alive I was there for something.”
Resources & links:
1 Hara Estroff Marano: Pitfalls of Perfectionism
Perfectionism may be the ultimate self-defeating behavior. It turns people into slaves of success — but keeps them focused on failure, dooming them to a lifetime of doubt and depression. It also winds up undermining achievement in the modern world.
2 Robert H. Woody Ph.D. Live… In Concert Perfectionism: Benefit or Detriment to Performers? Chasing perfection may not be the best way to achieve excellence.
3 Overcoming Perfectionism: Brene Brown Talks Perfection And Authenticity With Oprah
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