The conventional way of viewing perfectionism is that it drives us towards excellence but torments us along the way. I’m starting to re-evaluate that idea. In my experience perfectionism holds me back from achieving excellence. Since I’ve started experimenting with non-perfectionist practice strategies, I have experienced more progress in the practice room and more performance successes. In my last post I promised to share some of these strategies. Many of these ideas are not new, but putting them together under the umbrella of anti-perfectionism feels novel to me, so I thought I’d share in case it will be helpful to someone else.
A note for parents: this is not just for adult musicians. It’s really important to keep these ideas in mind as you practice with your children. We sign up for music lessons with all sorts of idealistic visions of the joy it will bring us, and it will, but learning an instrument is never a straight line. There will always be bumps and some practice sessions will not embody the vision you had starting out. That’s okay. If you approach practice with an attitude of improvement and experimentation for both yourself and your child – you will figure out ways to make it easier. We need to practice practicing. Practice itself is a learned skill and we can get better at it little by little.
Okay, here it goes:
Put the emphasis on improvement. This is sometimes called adopting a growth mindset.* A few years ago my practicing changed for the better when I started identifying areas of my musicianship I wanted to improve, brainstormed some ways of practicing those things, and systematically worked toward improvement. When improvement is the goal rather than achievement it changes the mindset completely and it’s so much easier to open the case each day (which in itself leads to more improvement).
Explore the art of prioritization. I have a sign up in my studio that says, “What is the ONE thing I can do RIGHT NOW that will make the BIGGEST improvement to my playing?” I like this sign because it doesn’t ask what 6 things I can do (even though there’s always a long list), and it doesn’t ask what can I do to FIX EVERYTHING COMPLETELY, no matter how much I would like that. And the RIGHT NOW part means I don’t get to rationalize putting it off by telling myself it’s too big to do today. All I’m looking for is one thing I can do now to work towards improvement. If I can’t decide quickly what’s most important I just pick one and start there. But if you know what you want to improve then sometimes the answer is very clear.
Adopt an attitude of experimentation. This is not the opposite of prioritizing, or of being diligent about doing the technical work you need to do – it just means approaching those practice items with a sense of curiosity. Ask yourself, “what if I tried it this way?” You can’t make progress on an instrument if you’re afraid of making a bad sound.** You need to be free to try things and discover for yourself whether they work. When you approach a technical problem as if you’re testing a hypothesis it’s not failure when the thing you try doesn’t work, it’s simply information.** It’s a clue. Practicing is much more fun when you approach it like Nancy Drew, trying to solve a mystery.
Keep track. I’m a big fan of practice journals and charts. Writing in a journal helps me get out of the all-or-nothing thinking of perfectionism and find the nuance. There are ALWAYS both successes and struggles in every performance or practice session, whether it felt like your best or your worst, and writing about them can help you see them more clearly. Practice charts are helpful for the opposite reason – they get you out of the nuance and into the yes-or-no question of “did I practice today?” If the answer is yes you get your sticker even if you didn’t become Yehudi Menuhin all in one day. If the answer is no then you know you need to find five minutes and do something.***
Set goals that are both big and small. This year I set a goal of practicing every day in 2019. That’s a big goal. But my definition of practice is small. I count “token practices”() (5 minutes or less) as practices. Committing to practice 4 hours every day in 2019 would be unrealistic, but touching the violin every day is realistic. I try not to let the token practices take over – it’s very important to me to protect my practice time – but I have to make allowances for reality and find a way to continue to commit to myself as a musician while dealing with whatever life throws my
Don’t abandon goals when you slip up. It’s August and how am I doing with my 2019 goal? I’ve missed 3 days so far. Does that render the goal a failure? To answer this question I have to ask myself why I set this goal in the first place. The real purpose of the goal was to make time for the violin in a year when I have a lot of other things on my plate (read: new baby). Have I achieved that? Yes. If I get to the end of 2019 having only missed 3 days I will be very pleased with that, but more importantly, I’m enjoying the musical growth I’ve experienced this year, which was the real purpose of the goal. That said, be careful not to use this principle to rationalize not practicing – I can always tell in my gut if I’m being honest with myself about whether I’m being true to the purpose of a goal.
There’s a lot more I could write on this topic but I think I’m going to leave it there for now. I’m curious to hear from readers – what do you do to combat perfectionism in the practice room?
*I’m very excited to read the Carol Dweck book on this topic. In the interests of non-perfectionism I decided not to wait until I had read the book to post on this topic. I am currently reading Angela Duckworth’s fantastic book, Grit, which includes some of Dweck’s research, and is a great resource for learning to stick with a passion over the long term despite setbacks.
**Thanks to Nancy Dahn and Barbara Conable for teaching me this.
***Check out this Bulletproof Musician article about the efficacy of “self-monitoring:” https://bulletproofmusician.com/self-monitoring-and-how-happy-face-may-have-been-a-more-potent-practice-strategy-than-i-realized/