Perfectionism

Greetings and welcome to another Flute Friday!

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Earlier this week, I teamed up with my husband to host a guest lecture on writing in the arts. This was wonderful timing as I had just drafted an article on blogging and was eager to speak about my own approaches to writing about music and the joys and challenges of hosting a weekly blog. Like a typical Type A musician, I came up with two different outlines. The first outline was a bit more detailed than the shorter, condensed outline, but both were perfectly prepared presentation roadmaps. What I did not remember, however, was that my husband’s teaching style is vastly different from my own. My husband is an improvisational artist, often devising brilliant concepts out of thin air with no preparation whatsoever – a skill that I have always wished I had. As my husband has more classroom teaching experience than myself, I agreed to let him take the lead on the lecture while I waited for an organic opportunity to launch into my outline. That moment never came. Instead, I was faced head on with the boundaries of my comfort zone, speaking off-script and discussing writing experiences without any preparation about what points I wanted to make or how I would relate my experience to the general topic of writing about art. This lecture highlighted something I already knew about myself but often try to ignore….

 

I am a perfectionist.

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But I know that I am not alone. The music profession attracts perfectionism and often the traits exhibited by successful performers are the same as those attributed to perfectionists.  In general, perfectionists refuse to accept any standard that is short of perfection, or at least the conception of “perfection” that they have developed in their minds. Instead of focusing on new experiences and/or skills, the primary objective for a perfectionist is to avoid any type of failure on their pathway to success. The problem with this type of thinking is that it leads to low self-esteem, depression, and anxiety which all lead to greater health issues down the road. In short, a perfectionist never quite feels “good enough.” Perfectionism also invites procrastination as more challenging tasks tend to overwhelm the perfectionist who usually only undertakes projects that they think they can perfect. Perfection, however, does not exist. My concept of what “perfect” means is much different than what James Galway’s idea of “perfect” may be or what playing “perfectly” means to my students. Today’s blog is devoted to how perfectionism manifests in our own music careers and what steps we can take to address and conquer our perfectionist tendencies. Like Queen Elsa reminds us, sometimes we all just need to Let It GO!

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First, let’s identify what traits are associated with perfectionism. Be warned – Many of these are skills that we practice as part of our musical training and continue to use in our professional careers.

Top 10 Signs that you are a Perfectionist

  1. Perfectionists freak out if they do not receive praise for their hard work. I bet you can relate to this one (I know I can!). You practice for hours, days, weeks, months to prepare a very important solo in your orchestral music (aka Firebird Suite), and at the concert, the conductor almost forgets to acknowledge you during the applause. Or perhaps you perform a successful solo recital and the final applause does not last long enough for a second bow. What is your reaction? Do you perceive your performance as a failure? Are you insulted by the conductor and vow to never play in that orchestra again?
  2. Perfectionists give up before they start. Have you ever opened a piece of music, played through a couple of bars, and decided not to work on it because it would obviously be too difficult to prepare for a recital? Or perhaps when performing a recital, you make a mistake within the first few bars of the opening piece. Is the recital doomed from that point or are you already categorizing the performance as a failure? Maybe you’ve buried That Etude Book in the bottom of your library because you are terrified of the amount of practice that will be required to master the music.
  3. Perfectionists find themselves frequently correcting others. This is literally the job description for conductors and section leaders. Do you find yourself informing your stand partner that they are on the sharp-side during rehearsal? Do you play just a bit louder than the principal player who tends to play too softly? If you are a section leader, do you find yourself berating your section for playing behind the beat or taking an enormous amount of time between pieces to tune your section?
  4. Perfectionists want to be good at new things right away and avoid challenges outside of their comfort zone. My experience guest lecturing with my husband is a good example of this. How many times have you been handed a piece of music that you could not play well from the get go? How did you react to your unsuccessful run-through? Did you feel like a failure? Perhaps you have programed a recital of works that you knew were easy just to have the satisfaction of playing them well right away. How many pieces have you avoided because you knew they were extremely challenging?
  5. A perfectionist’s self-esteem hinges on accomplishments in a few domains (career, income, etc.). This one hits a little too close to home for many musicians. Music is a profession that intermingles emotion and interpretation as core demands from its workers. It is difficult not to personalize the process of creating music when we always strive to put “ourselves” into our music. Who we are is not defined by what we do. If you find yourself defining your worth as a person by the outcome of your performances, you may be a perfectionist.
  6. A perfectionist may become very upset when other people do not do something their way. This also strikes a nerve with many musicians. A conductor, for example, has a particular sound in mind before he/she reaches the podium and often struggles to communicate these intentions with members of the orchestra who may all have different interpretations of the music.
  7. Perfectionists often say no to opportunities that they are not 100% confident they can perform well. How many auditions have you skipped because you did not think you could prepare the audition material adequately prior to the audition date? How many competitions have you not participated in simply because you did not think you could win? Have you ever postponed a recital because you were not confident that you could play the pieces up to your own standards by the scheduled recital date? If you are a nervous performer, perhaps you have let performance opportunities slip through your hands because you were not sure how your nerves would affect your performance.
  8. Perfectionists like to follow directions exactly. This is a classical performer’s life. We perform predetermined notes, in a predetermined fashion, under the baton of a conductor with a predetermined style in mind. Following directions, therefore, becomes the key to a successful career as an orchestral musician. Auditions themselves are a test of how accurately a performer can “follow the rules.” This is a good example of a trait that both helps and hinders members of an orchestra.
  9. Perfectionists become defensive of criticism. How many times have you been insulted when a conductor has called you out in front of the ensemble for not playing something correctly? You want to play your part perfectly but when the cracks in your surface are exposed, it is very difficult to maintain composure. I cannot tell you how many times I have left rehearsal in tears because I was called out for not playing something correctly. I could not process exactly what the conductor was asking because I was too busy mentally criticizing myself for not being perfect. Have you had experiences like this?
  10. Perfectionists become very stressed out if they do not complete routines as planned. Two words: Practice Sessions. You procrastinate and procrastinate and before you know it, it is 10:00 pm and you have not yet opened your instrument case. You plan a make-up practice session for the next day, which gets cut short by an invite from friends to get brunch. You finally get to your normally scheduled 2 hour practice session on the third day and realize 90 minutes into your work that you have only practiced 2 pieces out of the 5 that you had intended to work on that day. (I’m stressing out just writing this hypothetical scenario!) We have all been there yet some musicians handle these situations much differently than others. Perfectionists will react with anxiety and may add another 2 hours of panic practice to make sure they practice all of the works they intended to rehearse that day.

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There are a number of other traits associated with perfectionism, but these are the ones that can be most directly related to musicians. Are you a perfectionist? It’s okay – don’t panic! We can get through this together! The following techniques can help you cope with perfectionism and turn your life around. The biggest lesson here is to make peace with your mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes but it is how we deal with them that determines whether we are growing or holding ourselves back.

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Dealing with Perfectionism – How to Cope

  1. Highlight the good (or “Good Enough”). Make a list of your best performance qualities, best music making exercises, and the best groups, performers, and conductors you have worked with in the past. Refer to this list frequently. You are a much better musician than you may realize and your experiences will give you insights into who you truly are as a musician.
  2. Pay attention to all-or-nothing thinking. Will the World really end if you bomb your solo in Mozart’s 3rd Symphony at the next orchestral concert? Probably not. Will you get kicked out of school for having a memory lapse at your senior recital? Doubtful. Recognize those moments of black vs. white or right vs. wrong and select a different reaction. Be okay with the grey areas that are good enough.
  3. Be less critical of others. Treat other musicians with respect, patience, and compassion. We all are at different levels in our musical development and have different strengths and weaknesses. Be sensitive to the laws of Karma! When you encourage others, rather than criticize, you create better working relationships with your colleagues and become less of a target for criticism from others.
  4. Surround yourself with musicians who make music purely for the enjoyment of the art (and not to secure a certain chair placement). Join a community orchestra or flute choir! Some of my best experiences have been playing with community groups who genuinely like what they do. That is, after all, the most important part of making music. If you don’t like performing, than why choose to do it?
  5. Therapy. This is the straight-forward answer, however a good therapist will help you examine why you are a perfectionist and how to be self-accepting and hopeful for the future. They will also have a number of exercises and techniques developed specifically for your unique brand of perfectionism.
  6. Recognize your perfectionist tendencies and how and when they manifest in your daily musical life. Reading this blog is a step in the right direction! Ask yourself honestly if you identify with some of the traits of a perfectionist and take steps to change your reaction to mistakes.
  7. Be realistic. Nobody is perfect! Just play to the best of your ability. Mistakes happen to everyone. It is okay if others do not like your playing. Even Mozart had his critics (“too many notes” as the saying goes).
  8. Ask yourself what you would say to a fellow musician, or student, who was worried about playing their music perfectly. What coping tools would you share with them? How would you point them in the right direction? Say these things to yourself J.
  9. Give yourself permission to fail. What is the worst thing that could happen if you make a mistake? Can you survive those consequences? Will it matter 24 hours from now? In 3 months? In a year?
  10. Lower your standards gradually. Do you really need to practice that piece for 4 hours? Are you okay with making mistakes on 2 out of 5 pieces at your recital? Accept your mistakes and move on to greater challenges.
  11. Exposure therapy. This is how many psychologists help patients overcome phobias. Challenge yourself to encounter situations that will expose your musical imperfections (especially those that you typically avoid). Sight read a piece in front of an audience. Show up to rehearsal 5 minutes before downbeat (rather than your usual 30 minutes). Wear a piece of clothing to your studio with a visible stain on the front. Attend a rehearsal without having practiced your part since the previous rehearsal. Throw out your lesson plan for the day and let your teaching organically flow from what you hear in your student’s performance.
  12. Set up realistic performance preparation schedules. Break down complicated pieces into baby steps. Learn one new piece at a time. Set egg timers and only work within your timelines. Let go of what you are working on when the buzzer goes off no matter what shape it is in.
  13. Set priorities and only devote your time and energy to the most important musical goals. Let the rest go!

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Are you a perfectionist? Which one of the traits of a perfectionist resonates most with you? How do you cope with your own perfectionist tendencies? Please comment below!

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Happy fluting!

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One comment

  1. I am a perfectionist too! I enjoyed your tips for dealing with this as a musician especially getting rid of the “all or nothing” thinking.

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