I am careful not to confuse excellence with perfection. Excellence, I can reach for; perfection is God’s business. (Michael J. Fox)

The snare of perfectionism

Musicians of all ages and skill-levels often face stressful situations: lessons, auditions, performances, deadlines, studio sessions, etc. Coupled with this, musicians tend to put a lot of pressure on themselves. While these circumstances can bring out the best in us—musically, and even personally—they can quickly become debilitating if our expectations are unrealistic.

I have encountered fledgling and seasoned musicians alike who have an internal voice reminding them of their inability to measure up to “perfect” musical standards. And that internal voice is frequently influenced by (often well-intentioned) external forces: the director who places unreasonable demands on an ensemble, the teacher who assigns repertoire far beyond the student’s reach, or the parents who admonish their child to be careful not to make mistakes in an upcoming recital. But if, as Michael J. Fox asserts, only God is perfect, how can perfectionist musicians begin pursuing the more attainable goal of excellence?

A personal story

My own journey toward the pursuit of excellence took place in college. I remember my private piano teacher remarking about a colleague, herself a pianist, “She makes the most beautiful mistakes.” I was dumbfounded by the notion that mistakes could be beautiful, especially after thinking for years that playing all the notes correctly is a performer’s ultimate achievement. The next time I attended one of her performances, I understood what my teacher meant: her ability to recover seamlessly from mistakes was almost breathtaking.

Sometime later, I turned pages for my teacher as he performed a work with orchestra, and I was astounded by how many bass notes in the score he did not play during a particularly difficult passage. After the performance, audience members raved about his riveting performance, and he graciously accepted their well-deserved compliments. When the crowd had dispersed, he nonchalantly told me, “I’ll have to keep working on that one passage.”

A couple years later, I had one of the most important piano performances of my life. When it was over, I recounted to my teacher the mistakes I had made. He responded, “Yes, you missed some notes, and some of the phrasing was off. But think instead of the many thousands of notes you played correctly. And, what is more, you made beautiful music tonight.” My understanding of music had broadened to something greater than markings on a page. Without any loss of musical integrity, I was set free to pursue excellence rather than perfection.

The rewards of pursuing musical excellence

Put simply, those who pursue excellence make better musicians than those who pursue perfection. Freed from the burden of focusing on not making mistakes, they are able to perform joyfully and reach compelling emotional depths. They also make better students, and the world’s best musicians have always been lifelong learners. Musicians who pursue excellence are not threatened by constructive criticism. They understand mistakes are inevitable, and they learn from their mistakes. These musicians learn from rejection, too; they are not devastated by it. They find value in who they are, not in what they do or how they perform.

What can you do?

Choose repertoire you enjoy. Young children just beginning to learn an instrument will always benefit from a thoughtful teacher who finds appealing, engaging music for them to learn. Older musicians must frequently perform music of someone else’s choosing, but they can always find something to enjoy about music they might not like: a fanciful chord progression, an unexpected melodic gesture, or an unusually effective articulation.

Give yourself enough time to prepare well. When faced with a deadline, make sure you can devote enough time to produce something musically excellent. Of course, this will vary depending on your schedule, the musical project, and other life factors. Being well-prepared is one of the best ways to ensure you are calm and centered enough to deliver a musically satisfying product.

Accept the fact that you are not perfect. You will never have a perfect musical performance or write a perfect piece of music. But, you can do your best. You can take pleasure in achieving something you once thought impossible. And, you can strive to become a more excellent musician.

© 2018 Timothy Shaw. All rights reserved.