I am a perfectionist. I have been one for as long as I can remember. My mother often tells me the story of how my second-grade teacher told her that I would always be harder on myself than anyone else would. And it's true.
Perfectionists get a bad rap in society. Sure, our work is praised, but as people we get a reputation for not being very fun to be around. We're easily upset if we or our work isn't up to our impossible standards. We're always stressed. Our fear of not being perfect sometimes paralyzes us from even trying something new.
"Just relax," people say. "All you have to do is be yourself." "It doesn't matter what anyone else does." "I love you just the way you are." "You can do anything you put your mind to."
You know what? None of that helps. I know. I've had all of that said to me and more. And none of that made me feel a single bit better when I could hear that my violin sound was vastly inferior to the people around me.
Here's the thing: People know when you're lying to them. So, every time that someone praised my violin playing, I was comparing myself to Hilary Hahn in my mind. I was comparing myself to the students seated higher than me in my orchestra. I know that I'm not the best violinist in the world, or even close to being world-class. So telling me that "Yes, you are that good," is a lie, and I know that. It made me feel worse.
I was in a pretty bad place, both with my emotional health and with my violin playing, when I met Burton Kaplan. It's only a slight exaggeration to say he saved my violin life. In one of my very first lessons with him, he told me something that I still remember. He said, "It's good that you're a perfectionist. It means you won't give up until you get it right."
This was the first time that anyone had ever told me it was a good thing that I was the way I was. People were always telling me not to be so hard on myself, to do yoga, to do deep breathing, to just relax.
What actually made me relax was Burton telling me that it was good that I was the way I was.
You can't stop being a perfectionist. At least, not in my experience. But you can channel it into something productive and use it to your advantage, rather than letting it destroy your peace of mind.
Here are six things that have helped me channel my perfectionism into a force for good.
1. Stop all negative self-talk immediately.
"I suck." "I'll never get better at this." "I'll never be the best." "I'll never be good enough." All these thoughts need to stop immediately. These are general thoughts of negativity. They are not helpful, they are not productive, and while you may never be the best violinist in the world (after all, that title can only go to one person, and even then it probably depends on the day), you can certainly make leaps and bounds of improvement.
2. Adopt an analytical mindset.
Treat yourself as a scientist and your playing as your experiment. Rather than say "Oh, gosh, I sound so bad," remove yourself a level. You're reacting to something in the sound; therefore, the logical conclusion is that something about your tone is off. Specifically describe what it is you don't like about the tone. And do refer to it as "the tone" rather than "my sound." Taking personal pronouns out of it makes it less personal.
So, "The tone is scratchy." Now, be even more specific. Is the tone uniformly scratchy? Is it scratchy all the time or are there some notes that sound more scratchy then others? If so, what is happening in the music when your tone scratches?
Let's say that your tone is the most scratchy when you cross to the E-string. Here's where you go back to your fundamentals. Observe yourself (you may need a mirror or a video recording to do this). You might notice that when you cross strings, your elbow neglects to move with your hand, or that your bow slides close to the bridge.
Now, take your information and try something new: Focus on keeping your bow on the middle sound point and using your elbow to cross strings.
Evaluate: Was the sound better, worse, or the same? In what specific ways?
3. Be specific about what you don't like.
Maybe your intonation is good but your rhythm is unsteady. Pick one aspect of your playing to improve at a time, rather than just repeating something over and over and hoping that it'll get better.
4. Listen to yourself. For real.
We perfectionists have a tendency to get lost in our heads. All that thinking sometimes drowns out the actual sounds we're making on our violins. Shift your focus to the actual sounds coming out of your violin at the present moment. If this is hard to do while playing, this is where a video recording of yourself comes in. Spend the first part of your practice playing and videoing yourself, then spend the second half watching that video, taking notes, and observing your sound. Again - be specific.
5. Set specific, attainable goals.
"I want to be the best." "I want to be first chair." These are things that you can't control. The only thing you can control is what you do and how you sound. You can't control that about anyone else, and you can't control what judges will say or do in a competition setting. Your goals should be about your playing. For example, "I want to play this piece and hold my violin up the whole time." "I want to listen to the way each note connects to the next." "I want to start my crescendos softer and get louder more gradually." These are all things that you can achieve in your practice session and that will make your playing better.
6. Confront your weaknesses head on.
I've always been afraid of doublestops. My hands tense up, my heart starts pounding, and I panic. So, for years, I avoided them. Now, I've created a Doublestop Bootcamp practice regimen for myself to tackle them head on. Don't avoid things that you don't think you're good at. Give them a try, and use the rest of the tips in this blog to make them better. Do them first in your practice session so you are freshest and get it over with.
One last thing: Remember that you are deserving of love and good things because you are a human being with a beautiful soul. You are worthy of love because you are you. Your violin playing doesn't determine your value or worth as a human being.
Love yourself, love your perfectionism, and use that perfectionism to make yourself a better violinist.
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