Perfectionism in Performance

As classical musicians, we are raised in an environment that not only encourages perfectionism but often, seems to demand it. A culture that picks apart everything we do, actively looking for things to pick apart. So, it’s no wonder that when we leave that space and move into the world of professional music, we are conditioned to not only notice every misstep but berate ourselves for it. Professionals aren’t allowed to make mistakes, right?

Even so, they happen all the time.

Perfectionism in Performance

Get a group of honest, professional musicians together, and the stories they can tell about humiliating public mistakes will make your hair curl. There’s the piccolo player who dropped two entire measures of a solo at a retirement party for the highest-ranking musician in the Marine Corp. Or the flutist whose electronic set up wouldn’t even turn on in front of hundreds of people.

Failure happens. Perfectionism is an expectation of the impossible.

The origins of perfectionism

Other than our training, which by nature, seeks perfect playing, where does this impossible expectation of perfection come from? No doubt, the ubiquitous availability of recordings plays a role.

By the time we hear a recording, it has been edited and mastered for hours. An engineer carefully splices together the very best parts of several different takes, and the result is, well, perfect. It’s easy to believe that what we are listening to is the record of people playing music in a room, instead of what it actually is – a collage of everyone’s best moments.

Recordings are wonderful for a lot of things. They are a particularly helpful tool for practice. But they are not live performances, and they don’t reflect the reality of live performance. A well-made recording is like a well-written essay – it’s been gone over with a fine-tooth comb, checked for grammar and intonation. A live performance, on the other hand, is a speech. It may be well-rehearsed, but it is happening in the moment, with all of the passion, and unpredictability that each moment holds.

Dealing with imperfection

So what happens if you mess up? How do you deal with it?

Well, first you have to accept it. It’s happened, without a time turner that allows you to go back and do it over, there’s nothing you can do. Beating yourself up doesn’t repair the past, it only ruins the present.

Remember, you win some, you learn some. Look at the mistake honestly and see if there’s a lesson in it. Do you need to practice a particular section? Do you need to develop a contingency plan for faulty equipment? Or is it just an anomaly – something so unusual that it’s likely to never crop up again?

Perfectionism is a fear of failure and a fear of the unknown. Like everything else in life, if we let the fear of failure stand in our way, we will never have authentic musical moments. Think about why you are performing. Think about what you are communicating through your music. Choose joy, and it will be the joy people remember.

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