Excellence, Not Perfection

November 13, 2012, 7:05 PM ·

“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 and coperformers.

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

RostropovichActually, 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.

© 2012 Gerald Klickstein
A version of this article first appeared on The Musician's Way Blog


November 14, 2012 at 03:48 PM · So nicely put. "Striving for excellence" is such a powerful mental goal to keep in mind (for many aspects of one's life). Thanks for penning/posting a great, relevant article.

November 14, 2012 at 07:14 PM · Mr. Klickstein,

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.

November 14, 2012 at 08:25 PM · This idea is so powerful in many areas of endeavor, and it's good to read it every now and then.

November 14, 2012 at 09:00 PM · Thanks for reminding us about the difference between the two concepts. For someone at my level, shooting for perfection is a non-starter. Shooting for excellence is a sensible goal because excellence is relative in a way that perfection is not. As always, Gerald, thank you for sharing your considerable insight with the folks on this site.

November 14, 2012 at 10:24 PM · Hi Tom, Karen, Rebecca, and Terez - Thanks for reading and for your supportive words. Most gratifying to hear! Warm regards, Gerald

November 15, 2012 at 03:43 AM · Great blog! My students often ask "What did I do wrong" when I want them to play something over again. Just recently I explained to a student that he had not done anything "wrong", but that we were trying to improve his playing. I had never thought to explain that to him before.

November 15, 2012 at 06:47 PM · Good point. I've never felt I could play anything really well simply because once I start getting good at something I move to more difficult material. This led me to formulate the philosophy: "We all suck, we just suck at different levels." I once said this at a workshop; the instructor looked at me and said, "You're one of those glass-half-empty people, aren't you?"

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.

November 16, 2012 at 04:01 AM · Don't try to make it perfect. Try to make it beautiful.

November 19, 2012 at 01:42 AM · As a public school orchestra director (retired for some years)I tried to separate goals into two categories:

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 ???

November 19, 2012 at 03:46 AM · This used to be true 50-60 years ago, when I was a young and upcoming professional. That is how I was trained, and the philosophy I embraced then and still do now. However, more recently, all the orchestral auditions I and my students have been involved in seem to require one thing: mindless, robotic, perfect playing of orchestral excerpts, with little concern for beauty or sensitive musicianship. Often a solo is not even heard. Perfection of technique seem to be the one essential. Remember, though many of us start out to be soloists, most of us have to be content to do our playing in orchestras, with few opportunities for self-expression. When trying for an orchestra job, we must submit to the audition process as currently devised, which, in my experience over many years, is more concerned with mechanics than with musicianship. I wish this were not true, and that all of us could be more concerned with music from the heart, and less with technical perfection.

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