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Overcoming Perfectionism

I’m exhausted just thinking about it… I can put myself in a perfectionist mindset instantly. I lived there for so long, it feels normal and familiar. It also feels anxiety-ridden and terrible. The past year has been a journey in unlearning so many tendencies that haven’t served me and replacing them with new thoughts and beliefs that will ultimately serve me, and my confidence.

Do you identify as a perfectionist? I know SO many musicians do (honestly most of them). But what is perfect? Do you have a definition? Can you clearly define what perfect would be for any given thing you play? Do you get a letter from the universe saying “Congratulations! I am pleased to inform you that you have just played that phrase perfectly!” Okay, I know that was a little bit snarky, but seriously, how do you know when you’ve achieved perfection? Most people I ask don’t have an answer.

Another common saying is, “There’s no such thing as perfect,” so why do we still chase it? Could a definition be correct notes? Does that make it perfect? Or is a compelling performance perfect? Can you have a compelling performance and miss a few notes? I’ve asked a lot of people that last question, and I’ve never heard someone say no. Perfection is elusive and made up, but we rarely specifically define what it even is!

Would you rather have a perfect performance or a compelling performance? Do you think there is a difference? You should ask yourself and truly answer. What makes one or the other? In my experience, perfectionism doesn’t serve your audience. If you are worried about being perfect on stage, you are doing your audience a disservice. You’re not trying to convey anything except perfection—which, let’s be honest, is usually a practice in aiming and hitting all the right notes. This way of performing is for you, not your audience. Perfection is for yourself. Crafting a performance you love and want to share is for your audience.

Why are you performing? What do you want to accomplish? These are answerable questions; just sit with them for 10 minutes or so and write your answers down. If you are performing to appear perfect or “good” at your instrument, you’re going to go into your performance very scared and hope that you don’t “mess up” because then people won’t think you’re “good.” Was I once the poster girl for this kind of thinking? Yes! Since then, I’ve expanded my approach and realized something incredibly useful: whether you are “good” or not is up to you to decide. Not only is it up to you, but it is also your responsibility to decide. It is not someone else’s job to tell you that you’re good—it is yours.

How many times have you gone to see a major orchestra, loved the performance, and said, “Wow, they played all the right notes!” People would look at you like you were insane if you did that. I mean they probably did play them all correctly, but that’s not why people remember a performance. People love what performers do with the notes on the page.

So I want to offer this idea: Do you love how you play? Not, do others like or validate it, but do YOU love it? And can you own that when you decide you do love it? When we ask ourselves if we love how we play, even in little moments in the practice room, we get curious and reflect. We take responsibility for validating ourselves even if we only love the way two notes sound together. We decide if it is good enough.

The definition of perfection is: “the condition, state, or quality of being free or as free as possible from all flaws or defects.” When we aim for this we don’t have intention. The only descriptors in this definition have to do with flaws or defects. And when we think about flaws and defects constantly in the practice room, we are immersed in a state of lack and scarcity. All we are focused on our flaws and defects, and we reinforce this for hours a day, for weeks, months, and years. If you don’t feel motivated to practice, this may be a reason.

Imperfection, by definition, is the state of being faulty or incomplete—but perfection sends us into lack and scarcity. Can there be something else? Do we need to think about performing as being perfect or imperfect? Because the stakes here are either being free from flaws and defects, or undesirable/faulty/incomplete. Perfection is a zero-sum game, and not only that, it is completely subjective. This is literally too much to handle…cue the exhaustion and burn out.

Some of you may be out there thinking, “Well, perfectionism really motivates me to practice. I just can’t stand if something isn’t perfect.” I hear you. Eliminating flaws in our playing is obviously something that needs to happen and something we work towards for years. Also, instead of thinking about eliminating flaws, maybe we could think about building something up? (See my post “Building vs. Fixing” for more on that!)

If my reason for practicing is to eliminate flaws and defects, my focus is on my flaws and defects. Negative self-talk loves to focus on flaws and defects, have you noticed? If you choose perfection as your reason to practice and prepare for a performance, burn out is inevitable. We can only take so much of telling ourselves over and over again about our flaws.

How do you want to feel when you practice? Personally,I want to create something that I’m excited to share with people. It usually involves playing the notes on the page (just to be clear). You don’t have to trade in the right notes for a compelling performance. I’m not saying that at all, but I’m not focused on the notes themselves. That seems pointless to me. Why not use the notes on the page to create something, rather than trying to execute them?

I don’t get curious about perfection, I get judgmental. One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is that if curiosity is the fuel of your practice, you’ll enjoy it immensely. If judgment is the fuel, you burn out quickly.

Choose curiosity over judgment in every moment. See what happens!

About Dr. Chelsea Tanner

Chelsea Tanner is a flutist, educator, and trained mindset coach for musicians. She most recently held positions on the faculty of SUNY Potsdam’s Crane School of Music and Penn State University. Chelsea completed her DMA from The University of Texas at Austin in the Spring of 2020. She is the creator of the Winning Mindset Academy and Flute Boot Camp, two online courses created to help musicians thrive in their careers. Chelsea has just launched a podcast called Align Your Mind where she teaches the power of thought work to anyone who wants to shift their mindset and achieve their goals. Chelsea’s former teachers include Marianne Gedigian, Jeanne Baxtresser, and Katherine Borst Jones.

  1. Peter Rivers

    Love this! I suppose I already knew but it is so good to see the trade off between the ‘right notes’ and ‘interpretation and expression’ so eloquently. Not so easy to put into practice. But perhaps that’s the point. We maybe should all try to put our emotional side MORE into practice when we practice. Even scales and TG exercises think of these as music, not exercises. Thank you for your fantastic thoughts on our mindset to performing. .

  2. Got me thinking!!¡¡¡

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