Perfectionism: Benefit or Detriment to Performers?
Chasing perfection may not be the best way to achieve excellence.
Posted December 15, 2015
I have the pleasure of interacting with many exceptional aspiring performers, mostly university music students. They are devoting their lives to becoming professional musicians. Their drive to improve their musicianship amazes me. Sometimes I hear them express things like “Nobody has higher expectations for me than I do” and “I’m my own harshest critic.” In fact I’ve heard many musicians practically brag, “I am such a perfectionist.”
Musicians as varied as opera great Luciano Pavarotti and rapper Ludacris have called themselves perfectionists (at least according to the quotes on this website, the sources of which are not cited). According to this perspective, performers’ refusal to accept anything less than perfection is their key to achieving the highest level of success. We often hear this sentiment from elite athletes. We need only look to women’s professional tennis for some provocative quotes. Tennis legend Chris Evert is quoted as saying “Every time, all the time, I'm a perfectionist. I feel I should never lose.” And more recently Serena Williams said “I’m a perfectionist. I’m pretty much insatiable.”
As much as I appreciate parallels between music and sports, the notion of perfect performance is difficult for me to apply to music. I would argue that to determine perfection, one must define correctness. In sports it is often easier to identify when correctness has been attained. In bowling, for example, a perfect score of 300 is achieved if all throws result in knocking all 10 pins down. I can understand that professional bowlers would aspire for this measure of perfection each time they take to the lanes. Scoring correctness in music performance, however, is not so readily done, aside from a simplistic idea of hitting all the right notes, where “right” is defined by the pitches and rhythms indicated in the printed score. I’d like to think that beyond children’s piano studios and middle school bands, musical excellence entails more than just the correct performance of notated pitches and rhythms. Unfortunately in such early formal education experiences, music teachers are most concerned with students getting the right pitches and rhythms. It’s possible that many musicians never quite grow out of this rudimentary mindset.
Surely most grownup musicians consider their performances successful only if they are expressive such that audience members have emotional responses concordant with their expressive intentions. And there is a range of expressiveness that listeners find to be acceptable and evocative of emotion. I suspect, however, that, despite the recognized importance of expressivity, many developing musicians occupy their attention during performance with some kind running tally of correct and incorrect moments. I find it particularly troubling that some can look at music performance with a perfectionist viewpoint, simplistically defining perfection as an avoidance of mistakes or bad moments in performance.
A perfectionist perspective may persist among some musicians because they believe it motivates them toward productive practicing and performance skill growth. Perhaps they subscribe to a philosophy like that once articulated by legendary American football coach Vince Lombardi, who said “Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection, we can catch excellence.” The field of psychology, though, offers much to refute this idea. In a recent article titled “Is there an Antidote to Perfectionism,” psychologist Thomas Greenspon drew upon clinical obervations from 35 years of psychotherapy practice to emphasize that anxiety and other mental health problems often accompany a perfectionist mindset (a conclusion reached by much previous research too) (Greenspon, 2014) “The most successful people in any given field, “says Greenspon, “ are less likely to be perfectionistic, because the anxiety about making mistakes gets in your way.” (Dahl, 2014).
Research shows that perfectionism can be quite unhealthy and even counterproductive to one’s development. Perfectionism as a personality trait is a strong correlate to performance anxiety. It is also linked to other maladaptive behaviors such as procrastination and eating disorders, and even suicide (Flett, Hewitt, & Heisel, 2014) When a perfectionist mentality does in fact drive musicians to practice a lot to develop their skills, I’d suspect the passion is of the obsessive—rather than harmonious—orientation, which can come with feelings of guilt and anger, and a general lack of satisfaction with one’s musical life.
Still other research has associated perfectionism with narcissism (Stoeber, Sherry, & Nealis, 2015), a condition that is far from the almost endearing notion of the “diva” musical performer. Narcissism is characterized by an excessive preoccupation with one’s own importance and a lack of empathy for others. Related to narcissistic traits, those who consider themselves perfectionists may tend to set perfectionist standards for others, which leads to frequent criticism and blaming of others. This can result in very strained personal and professional relationships.
Perfectionists may engage in blaming others as part of an ego defense mechanism to absolve themselves of self-criticism. If they cannot find a scapegoat around them or are otherwise forced to look inwardly, they may be particularly hard on themselves and exaggerate their failures. Research shows that perfectionists are particularly susceptible to depression and anxiety.
For many self-proclaimed perfectionists, in moments when they accept that they cannot reach their desired goal of being perfect, they may settle for just appearing to be perfect. This can lead to bizarre behaviors as a musician tries to broadcast to those around him an image of someone who he really isn’t. These behaviors can include self-handicapping, in which a musician goes to great lengths to have excuses ready in advance of a potential performance failure. Having a convincing excuse receives more of the musician’s effort and attention than actually preparing for a successful performance. Extreme self-handicapping behaviors include making oneself sick or injured or damaging one’s own musical instrument prior to a big performance.
As shown above, perfectionism is considered by psychologists to be among the most destructive personality traits and possibly indicative of mental illness. When I talk with musicians with perfectionist tendencies, I try to get them to realize that aspiring for perfection is in fact irrational; perfection is usually undefinable, untrackable, and unattainable by human beings in real life. Overcoming a perfectionist mindset starts with getting real. Literally. I’m of the belief that in efforts to attain good psychological health, reality rules. Performers should not keep a running tally of correct and incorrect moments during performance; rather they should evaluate their performances more holistically—after all, that’s how most audience members do it. And I cannot emphasize enough how important it is for performers to think less about correctness and more about communication. Yo-Yo Ma put it this way:
While sitting there at the concert, playing all the notes correctly, I started to wonder, “Why am I here? I’m doing everything as planned. So what’s at stake? Nothing. Not only is the audience bored but I myself am bored.” Perfection is not very communicative. However, when you subordinate your technique to the musical message you get really involved. Then you can take risks. It doesn’t matter if you fail. (Blum, 1998, pp. 6-7)
So even if musicians could play all the notes correctly, it doesn’t mean they’ve given a good performance. And with Yo-Yo Ma’s insight to back me up, I’d go so far as to say the expressive nature of music demands a non-perfectionist mindset. Perhaps if a person has such a strong perfectionist orientation to life—that is, he or she is practically controlled by the felt need to identify right and wrong in their activities—perhaps that person is not cut out to be a musician.
Psychologist Thomas Greenspon (cited above) suggests that it is critical that people make a distinction between a pursuit of excellence and a quest for perfection. So instead hoping to “catch excellence” while in an unrealistic chase of perfection (to use Coach Lombardi’s terms), musicians are better off being honest with themselves and others around them by simply making excellence their goal in the first place.
Blum, D. (1998). Quintet: Five journeys toward musical fulfillment. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Dahl, M. (2014, September 30). The Alarming New Research on Perfectionism. New York Magazine. Retrieved from http://nymag.com/scienceofus/2014/09/alarming-new-research-on-perfectio…
Flett, G. L., Hewitt, P. L., & Heisel, M. J. (2014). The destructiveness of perfectionism revisited: Implications for the assessment of suicide risk and the prevention of suicide. Review of General Psychology, 18, 156–172.
Greenspon, T. S. (2014). Is there an antidote to perfectionism? Psychology in the Schools, 51(9), 986-998.
Shafran, R. & Mansell, W. (2001). Perfectionism and psychopathology: a review of research and treatment. Clinical Psychology Review 21(6), 879–906.
Stoeber, J., Sherry, S. B., & Nealis, L. J. (2015). Multidimensional perfectionism and narcissism: Grandiose or vulnerable? Personality and Individual Differences, 80, 85-90. DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2015.02.027
Copyright 2015 Robert H. Woody
Source of image: Ashlyn on Flickr Creative Commons.