A few months ago I had a bit of an epiphany listening to the “Stop Trying to be a Perfectionist!” episode of the wonderful classical music podcast Per Service. At one point, one of the hosts says something to the effect of “People tend to think perfectionists always are really together, but it’s not true. This is why I never clean my apartment – because you can’t fail at something you haven’t started yet.”*
When I heard that I thought, “THIS is why I never practiced in high school.” (And also why I don’t clean more but that’s another topic.)
It was a big realization for me. I had sometimes suspected I was a perfectionist but thought I must not be because, surely if I were I would be much better at things than I am! In other words, I thought that if I were a perfectionist I would be more perfect.
Later in the podcast the hosts come to agree on a definition of perfectionism that goes something like, “the debilitating fear of failure where failure is defined as anything less than perfect.”* I would take that one step further and say that perfectionists equate imperfection not just with failure at the task, but failure as a person.
This is the kind of perfectionist I am learning not to be. Looking back I realize that the reason it was so hard for me to take the violin out of the case every day, even though I loved playing and had big goals, was that fear of failure. I couldn’t fail at something I hadn’t started yet.
Practicing is hard. Even when it’s going well and we’re in a state of flow and everything is wonderful it’s hard work. And it’s never perfect. No practice session is perfect, no performance is, no person is. So how do you work towards excellence and set big goals without equating imperfection with failure? That’s what I’ve been trying to figure out.
This is an important question for all musicians, and for teachers and parents too. We can unwittingly infect the young people in our lives with our perfectionism if we’re not self-aware about it. Looking back I realize some of my students have had these struggles and they probably learned them (at least in part) from me. We need to find a way to teach young musicians to set high standards and develop their critical listening skills without setting them up to perpetuate the perfectionism/procrastination cycle so many musicians know so well.
As I explore this topic I realize it’s also important not to get perfectionist about not being a perfectionist! We will slip up. I am still learning how to apply this new mindset in my own practicing and teaching. Learning not to be a perfectionist is a process of working towards a goal, and in true non-perfectionist fashion, the process is the important part.
In my next post I’ll talk more about some of the strategies I’ve been trying out for combatting perfectionism in the practice room and teaching studio. Stay tuned!
*In the interest of not being a perfectionist, I’m not going to spend an hour re-listening to the podcast to make sure I got the quotes exactly right. I paraphrased, you get the idea, and you can listen to it yourself if you like. I highly recommend that you do, it’s a very interesting discussion.