If you’re a perfectionist, you tend to set an extremely high and unreasonable standard for yourself. You expect to perform up to that standard all the time, in spite of conditions or circumstances. This goal can push you to try to perform flawlessly, but it can also prevent that from happening. For musicians, perfectionism is an unrealistic expectation and an unattainable goal. It depletes your limited time and energy. It is not worth pursuing. Trying to be perfect will delay or prevent you from getting to your goal.
Musicians often think the only way to achieve their best is to constantly demand it of themselves, but trying to be perfect is counterproductive. When you strive to give a performance that is without the slightest imperfection, you’re attempting to do something that can’t get any better. Even if you happen to do it once, where do you go from there? Why practice anymore if you’ve done it perfectly?
The probable outcome is that you will never get there. By setting your goals unrealistically high, you are setting yourself up for failure. You’ll realize that you’re not able to complete the intended task perfectly, on schedule, and to everyone else’s approval. If you expect to be perfect, sooner or later you will come to the conclusion that no matter what you do, you will never reach your goal. It can be demoralizing.
Your desire for perfection doesn’t match up well with giving live performances. There are too many moving parts that need to be executed just right, in real time, sometimes in sync with other performers, often in front of many other people. There are endless possibilities for minor flaws and imperfections, not to mention major mishaps. This is the reality of the performing arts. Mistakes happen. Mistakes do not mean that you failed entirely, or that you’re less of a person.
Perfectionists tend to get caught up in their left brains. The left hemisphere is where you think in words, concerned with technical details, analysis, and precision. The left brain thinks in two dimensions: either yes or no, here or there, black or white, excellent or terrible. It causes rigidity in decision making, critical judgments, and a lack of meaningful action. This causes inflexibility in your perfectionist thinking. Trying to be perfect will limit your creativity and artistic expression because you are cautiously attempting to minimize the possibility of error. This lack of freedom will actually increase your likelihood of making mistakes.
Strive for excellence
However, if you’re more interested in improving as a musician and realizing your full potential, rather than trying to be perfect, there’s a way to get there. It involves a change of your mindset, a shift from left brain to right, and a striving for excellence, instead of trying to be perfect. The idea is to focus on your progress in the moment, which is under your immediate control. Staying focused on the moment, you won’t be distracted by the unlikely possibility of ultimate perfection at some time in the future, which is out of your control. In the meantime, you want to use your right brain.
The right brain is where we picture images, hear sounds, and feel the physical sensations associated with movement. It’s the more creative, artistic side of the brain, the domain of dancers, instrumentalists, singers, and composers. The right brain can vividly imagine your best performance. It is able to see it clearly, hear it the way you like it to sound, and fully sense the movement of correctly executing physical skills. The left brain is incapable of performing those functions that are essential to performing your best.
The right brain is also able to think in three or more dimensions. Rather than the limited thinking of the left brain in binary terms, the right brain can think in terms of three or more: Yes, no, and maybe; great, bad, or ok; here, there, or the space between; black, white, grey, or even the colors of the rainbow. For performers, that includes images of flowing movements, the sounds of a great solo, and the feeling of a challenging movement being executed correctly.
The right brain is able to imagine all sorts of possibilities, so it’s more flexible than the left brain. It’s able to move faster without all of the unnecessary reminders that things aren’t going precisely according to the perfect plan. The right brain offers no words, doubts, deliberations, judgments, or criticisms. Stay with the process in the moment, and focus on continually improving and doing your best. The solution to perfectionism as a performer is to strive for excellence.
Striving for excellence is doing the best you can on a daily and continuing basis. It is a constant quest for improvement. Do even just a little better every day, day after day, pursue realistic and attainable goals, and allow for missteps along the way. Accept that like everyone else, you make mistakes. Learn to profit from mistakes by letting them tell you what you need to work on next. Continue to surpass what you’ve already done on the way to your dream.
Striving for excellence is a journey towards your best, beyond your left-brained fears. As you follow the path of excellence, you will become more competent, experienced, and confident in yourself. On your new path of progress, you should hear beautiful sounds, see successful images, and experience wonderful feelings. You will find more expressiveness in your performing, with a purpose, passion, and renewed vitality. You will be more able to communicate to others through your music.
In the process of communicating with your audience, expressing the character, meaning, or feeling of the material to them in the right way, it’s possible that you may make a slight error or misstep. That’s what makes live performances exciting! It’s not a big deal unless you turn it into one, so why do that? It doesn’t serve you or your audience well. It’s the performer’s unique talent, skill set, personality, and even imperfections that bring audiences back to their performances. If perfection were actually attainable it would soon get boring. After a while, audiences would abandon live music.
Here are some recommendations to help manage your counterproductive perfectionist tendencies and behaviors:
- Practice self-forgiveness. Accept that you’re human.
- Negotiate with the part of you that can’t accept any mistakes.
- Learn to laugh at your perfectionistic tendencies.
- Ease up a little. Allow yourself to make occasional errors.
- Set realistic high standards, not unattainable results.
- Recognize errors, without judgment, then focus on correcting them.
- Learn from your failures.
- See the gray areas and nuances between the black and white.
- Continually strive to do your best every day.
- Be grateful for your opportunities to fail and succeed.
Dr. Don Greene, a peak performance psychologist, has taught his comprehensive approach to peak performance mastery at Juilliard, Colburn School, New World Symphony, Los Angeles Opera Young Artists Program, Vail Ski School, Perlman Music Program, and the U.S. Olympic Training Center. During his 32-year career, he has coached more than 1,000 performers to win professional auditions and has guided countless solo performers to successful careers. Some of the performing artists with whom Dr. Greene has worked have won jobs with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Concertgebouw Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony, San Francisco Opera, Montreal Symphony, Pittsburgh Symphony, National Symphony, Cincinnati Symphony, Pacific Northwest Ballet, and the Dance Theatre of Harlem, to name just a few. Of the Olympic track and field athletes he worked with up until and through the 2016 games in Rio, 14 won medals, including five gold. Dr. Greene has authored ten books including “Audition Success,” “Fight Your Fear & Win,” “Performance Success,” and most recently “College Prep for Musicians.” In 2017, Dr. Greene was named a TED Educator and collaborated with musician Dr. Annie Bosler to produce the TED-Ed talk “How to practice effectively…for just about anything.” The video went viral and received over 25 million views across Facebook and YouTube. For more information, visit winningonstage.com, winninginsports.com and collegeprepformusicians.com.