V.com weekend vote: Does the need for perfection keep you from performing?

November 10, 2017, 9:15 AM · Let's face it, getting on stage can be rather difficult, in any of the performing arts.

In particular, violinists and other classical musicians seem immersed in a culture of unobtainable perfection. For many musicians, striving for that perfection can cause us to avoid performing.

stage fright

I really enjoyed Michael Kennedy's blog this week, its message being something like "get over yourself and just play for people"! The more practice you get performing, the better you will perform, and the better you'll feel about performing.

Nevertheless, we all want to perform well, and all those hours of practice can turn us into highly self-critical creatures. It's hard to turn off that "perfectionist" voice from the practice room in order to give what we have and enjoy performing.

Are you nagged by feeling that you are never ready, that your playing or your piece always needs improving? Does this cause you to avoid performing? Or do you simply get on stage and have fun, do your best? Please vote and then tell us your thoughts about this issue and how best to handle performing vs. perfection.

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November 10, 2017 at 05:06 PM · I too, enjoyed Michael Kennedy’s blog and identified with most all of what he said. I find my practice at home goes sooo much better than when I go to my teacher’s studio for a lesson. My fingers stumble, I go flat or sharp, I sound like I haven’t put time into the lessons at all and in truth, I practice at least 20 hours a week. I think it’s as Michael said, I’m performing in front of my teacher and become very nervous. I try to psych myself into not feeling this way, but seldom works! I always feel like I could do better.

November 10, 2017 at 05:49 PM · "I leave perfection in the practice room + perform as best as I can." This was how I voted.

Somehow I got to enjoy performing quite early. If you've mastered the material, then you should be able to pull it off. If something isn't quite perfect, the hard work you've put in should help you recover like a pro -- likely before anyone in your audience can detect it. And it bears repeating: Perform often, if you can.

November 10, 2017 at 06:46 PM · I always remind myself to expect 10-20% slippage and NEVER to let the audience know I'm dissatisfied with my performance

November 10, 2017 at 07:07 PM · Yes, sadly, the fear of making a mistake and the old trauma left from an abusive old-school demeaning violin teacher back in the 2000s in Europe killed it for me. I am not bragging, I play really well in the practice room, but I'm so paralyzed with fear and nerves that playing in public (even in front of a friendly teacher or friend) has become just impossible...

November 10, 2017 at 07:31 PM · In talking about this issue, violinist Lara St. John quoted a friend as giving advice along the lines of: "As soon as you walk out on stage, lower your standards!" In other words, be in the moment, give it what you've got, but turn off the critic!

November 10, 2017 at 07:59 PM · I have been invited to play locally by a few musician friends on violin. Every time I go to these gatherings I am sorely disappointed in myself.

I am simply not good enough on the instrument yet. I don't like the feeling of not being in total control of the instrument and not always knowing why. I have probably played out more than I should have.

I have set a goal to become a better player. Hopefully by next year.

If I had been playing the instrument for say 10 years or more I probably wouldn't feel this way.

The people around me are sometimes too kind. I know how I play though and it isn't what I want yet.

November 10, 2017 at 08:02 PM · Tim, I know how you feel. The thing is, I bet there are players who are better now than you or I will ever be, who feel the same way. What then?

November 10, 2017 at 08:06 PM · As an amateur with a different career I don't get many opportunities to perform. When I do, I am up against my own nerves and a desire to play perfectly. A violinist I have studied with once told me you have to prepare 130% and on stage you will have 90%. The challenge is that feeling you are only at 90% at best so on stage...

November 10, 2017 at 08:21 PM · My last audition to get in a paying orchestra was about 4 years ago. After nailing a number of Mozart selections, I totally choked when I had to play about 8 measures from Brahms 2nd Symphony that featured several descending passages starting in a high position with tricky intervals. Of course I had practiced it but left without playing it because it was a long way from perfect.

November 10, 2017 at 09:25 PM · Laurie, et al.

One category is missing - lack of opportunity even if you have the desire/inclination to perform.

For me "performance" is usually limited to duets with my students in front of their families. I used to play with a community orchestra that was multi-generational but is young people only now. The other community orchestras in the area have rehearsal/performing schedules that just don't fit my current lifestyle as I'm no longer a late night person.

November 10, 2017 at 11:26 PM · I think George has a good point in his comment. Dealing with the desire to perform is one factor, but having venues and opportunities for performing can be a challenge in and of themselves. It is really challenging if a person is a beginner like I am, with less than half a dozen pieces somewhere near performance level (whatever that means). I know many cities around the country have classical music showcases in restaurants, and that is great. Classical Revolution has opportunities in many cities, and if you Google Classical Open Mic, you can find others. Now, for someone like me - a guy who can knock out a rather convincing rendition of "Go Tell Aunt Rhody", I need to accept some realities. If I play at one of these classical open mic shows - and I'm going to do it soon - it is highly likely I'd be playing between others with a lot more experience and skill, but I really don't mind. The nice thing is that at my level, I've got nothing to lose and everything to gain. Also, I suggest just going to a regular open mic at a coffee shop or in a bar. With everyone else carrying guitars and singing original songs, it would be a novelty to see someone up there with a violin. Frankly, with a little Bach or Vivaldi, I think they'd be so surprised they might even put down their cell phones and actually pay attention! In any case, it's worth a try. Finally, if you can't find opportunities, see what you can do to create your own. With the success of our first adult student recital, my teacher, Mirabai Peart, is planning a second one in late January or early February.

November 11, 2017 at 01:18 AM · The teacher of the violinist in my piano quintet puts on regular (3-4 per year) studio recitals: one for her kids and one for her adult students. She opens up the adult recital to friends of her students.

This has helped me get over debilitating stage fright so much because

A) Everyone performing is a student (including very beginners)

B) Everyone supports each performer with applause and compliments (not empty ones)

C) There is food and wine after the performances :)

So I'm somewhere between being nagged by my imperfections and leaving perfection in the practice room (which is a given no matter what I voted).

November 11, 2017 at 01:33 AM · Even though I strive for perfection, I have never been nervous on stage my entire life, despite messing up a bit each time.

November 11, 2017 at 11:42 AM · 'Does the need for perfection keep you from performing?'

Absolutely not!

Just last weekend, at a chamber music workshop for amateurs, my long-time trio partners and I decided we were going to 'live dangerously' and perform the last movement of the Shostakovitch Op.67 we'd been working on, because it was our favourite.

This may have been the first time I agreed to perform something with sections I could barely (if at all!) get right even in the practice room. But it was an informal performance among friends who said nice things to us after us, including, "you seemed to be enjoying yourselves."

Certainly, I was enjoying myself, although I have to admit I found the experience a little scary, and if among the things that (inevitably) went wrong there had been a passage I felt confident about, it may well have nagged me afterwards all the same.

Still, I'd say, go for it! At least occasionally ...

November 11, 2017 at 05:10 PM · In my 7th decade, impaired hearing, double rotator cuff surgeries, trigger thumbs, and the rest of the "organ-recital", I've migrated from semi-soloist to playing with the 1sts...to the violas....and finally the 2nd violin section..no slam on playing 2nd violin meant...do my best, still prepare for each rehearsal, but have developed a premise meant to be humorous wherein after your 75th birthday, you may bow ala Stokowski ergo whatever suits you...and if you sit deep in the section, no one'll notice or care...and if you can find a similarly aged stand partner, life is bliss.

November 12, 2017 at 10:05 PM · I am late beginner (46 years old) from and living in Africa. For me, the need for perfection drives me to practice more. In practice though, no matter how prepared I feel, i still feel some butterflies when the moment finally comes. For me, being good in practice is not good enough unless you are able to do some form of "public" performance

November 13, 2017 at 12:39 AM · I was never nervous in performing publicly in any form when I was young, but the older I'm getting, the more I tend to get nervous in public performances. Even though I'm not a perfectionist, I do set certain standards for my performance and the standards keep going up as I'm getting better or knowing more about what I can mess up.

I understand what Timothy and Paul are talking about. I have to say that feeling underprepared is no. 1 justified reason for the reluctance to perform. I don't think you need 10 years to prepare, but you need to be prepared as the best as you can within your current level to be rewarded in performances. This kind of preparation includes, of course, the works you will be presenting, but also the other players' level and how supportive they are and, ideally, the audience.

November 13, 2017 at 06:19 AM · I find it is a bigger problem with practicing where people can hear me. If I make mistakes while playing in front of people, so be it. I'll do better next time.

But if someone can hear me practice? Nope. No way. No how. Immediately self conscious. I don't even like using the practice rooms on campus because you can hear the sound outside the door when playing above mf.

November 13, 2017 at 03:53 PM · Michael - I feel you with that! I was very briefly part of a college orchestra and had such horrible fright practicing in the practice rooms that EVERYONE passed en route to the mailroom and food hall that I eventually gave up practicing there. In my brief moments of performing in front of an audience to that point, while I was mortified, I managed to enjoy myself and want to do it all again. Meanwhile, 19 years later, I had houseguests last week and had no problem practicing with them around yet I won't stand in the same room as them and play. Go figure.

I'm awaiting my copy of the Inner Game of Music because this cannot continue.

November 14, 2017 at 12:58 AM · Michael and Pamela, I'm quite the opposite: I open the windows in warm weather and let people hear me practice without feeling bad. Well, the thinking behind is that practice is not suppose to sound good, but when it comes to performance, I'm supposed to be ready for it, so no excuse for sounding less than near perfect. One of my fondest childhood memories (around middle and late 70s in Shanghai)is hearing the practicing sound coming out of a building. Whether it sound good or not (often pretty good to my ears), it meant peace and culture.

November 14, 2017 at 02:20 AM · Yixi,

I think part of the problem for me is the concern about loss of respect when they hear my dreadful playing. As a senior student I'm expected to be quite adapt at most things I do at this point, but my viola-ing is my 'newest' musical skill, and thus my weakest.

Of course I know this is not true and no one really cares. I guess we all have our little hangups.

I know when I practiced guitar on campus I would do it anywhere I could (as practice space was limited). For the first 3 years I was welcome to (and took advantage) of the ability to practice publicly daily in the campus chapel, which was quite a high traffic area. Of course now they've moved it to another building and where it once was is now a lounge. The acoustics are destroyed. :(


It's funny how things change like that over time, right? I wonder if the intimacy has something to do with it. I was recently in my first orchestral performance and I actually forgot the audience existed for much of it, but where there are people with you in a smaller room it's a different kettle of fish entirely. The fourth wall isn't really there!

November 14, 2017 at 02:32 AM · "I'm quite the opposite: I open the windows in warm weather and let people hear me practice …."

Same here. The only difference is that I play in the garage 8 months of the year, because it's warm enough here -- sometimes more than 8 months. So this is how I share the music with neighbors and passers-by. They keep saying they like it and that they stop to listen.

And that keeps me on my toes. I am, indeed, performing. Sessions are a blend of hard-core practice and recreational playing. I guess the only parts others wouldn't care for are repetitive practice -- e.g., the passages I break up into small chunks, rehearsing each segment several times in a row.

Side note for anyone concerned: I always use foam earplugs, L/R, when practicing or playing. Mine have a dB reduction of 33, which cuts the sound down to a safe level. I'm still aware of the garage reverb, but the plugs cut it down so that I can really focus.

November 15, 2017 at 07:53 AM · Oh yes, the positive feedbacks from the neighbors and passer-by made me want to share my violin sound too. Our next door neighbor bought the house 10 years ago keeps telling me and others that my violin practice was one of the factors that she had fell in love with the house when she was viewing. Other neighbors would often stop me on the street and tell me how much they enjoyed the "beautiful music" I played. All the while, I was being super self-critical when I was practicing. I guess if you are lucky enough to have gracious neighbors, even repetitive practice could please some of them. They like to see that you are working hard to improve yourself.

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