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Perfectionism, Music, and Me

I am a perfectionist.

Yes, I know it’s hard to tell from some of the things you’ve seen me do but it is true. Over the years, I think I have become much better at knowing how far to take it and when to let it go. I have seen this referred to as something like the 80/20 rule or some proportion like that. When you get to 80 or more percent complete that last little bit you are trying to get perfect can become consuming and you get much less return for your effort. I am not saying I have that mastered, but I am usually better at knowing when to stop than I used to be. Or as I am fond of saying, “good enough for government work!”

However, what I have realized recently is that perfectionism is a big issue with my playing music. It is all over it. For instance, I spend too much effort trying to get a riff down in one key before trying to learn it in all keys. More generally, I think “I suck” because I don’t have something nailed, and I spend too much time trying to nail it. I tend to beat myself up over mistakes, weak performances, and not getting a part down right away.

The worst place this turns up is playing for other people. When I am playing for someone new, whether auditioning or joining them, I don’t know what they expect from me. I think my reaction is that I have to be perfect in order to cover whatever they are looking for. There are several problems with this. The biggest is that perfection in music is impossible. We are all human and there are differences in what each of us play. I can only play like me, and like any relationship, if I’m not being myself it won’t work in the long run. Even if I can play exactly like someone wants, if that’s not me, in the end I’ll get tired of pretending. It is a little different than a personal relationship in that I might want to play more like this person or that person anyway and it’s not all the time. But if the other person is always looking for me to be like someone else that just won’t work.

What this does is make me worry about trying to play to some vague goal of perfection, instead of accepting the fact that I can only play like I can play, and if they don’t like it, that’s just the way it is. Ideally, everyone will like me and want me to play for them, but that’s not realistic. That’s not a judgement on me nor them, that’s just life.

It’s funny in that this is a lesson I learned thirty years ago in another performance area. I was part of a ceremony where I had several poems to recite. I was struggling with remembering my lines and I wasn’t too happy about it. An older person saw what I was going through and talked to me about it. He recognized that I was being a perfectionist because he was one as well. He pointed out that what was important was to tell the story of the poems, not the exact words. He also suggested that if I did forget what to say that I could make it look intentional, throw another log on the campfire, and resume when I was ready. I was in control. I did what I could to take his advice, and it worked. In fact, I’m pretty sure that for the most part, I did nail the lines because I was relaxed about them. There might have been a time or two where I didn’t recite them word-for-word, but I was close enough and glided through them if I recall correctly. I’m sure you can see how this applies to playing music, too. I literally only did yesterday.

Here I am, some thirty years later wishing I had realized the applications of this lesson a bit better. There is nothing I can do about that now. I am glad it took in other parts of my life, though.

Posted 2014 05 22 at 12:20 PM

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