November 14, 2012 at 2:05 AM
“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)
Rather, we musicians practice to grow as artists, to achieve excellence, and to share heartfelt music with our listeners and coperformers.
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 . . .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.
"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."
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.
To counter perfectionism, we first need to adopt a growth mindset, recognizing that musical problems can be overcome through learning and effort.
Here are 7 tips that help aspiring musicians embody constructive work habits:
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.
© 2012 Gerald Klickstein
A version of this article first appeared on The Musician's Way Blog
I just wanted to say how much I thoroughly enjoy your blogs and your book as well! I just ordered the book a few weeks ago, and have not been able to put it down. Thanks so much again for sharing your wisdom and insight.
Thanks for putting things into perspective. Another thing that's been helping is my recent entry into the world of orchestra. Occasionally, while stumbling through my part and feeling self-conscious about not being perfect, I'll find a moment to listen to the other players - and by golly, they're not perfect either! But we're all striving for excellence, and in the end we can all congratulate each other for doing the best we can - maybe a little bit better each time.
ATTAINABLE (TODAY): Starting/ending together, correct notes, correct bowing, etc.
APPROACHABLE: Intonation, tone, dynamic agreement, nuance, etc.
Perhaps this mode of thinking is also applicable to personal practice ???
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