Perfectionism. It has been a demon of mine for many years. It started out as probably no smaller than a kitten, playfully nagging at my early years of piano practice and performance. In high school, perfectionism was about the size and energy of an untrained German Shepherd puppy. It would occasionally bite at me if my percussion playing wasn’t good enough. But, for the most part it was manageable. Yet, my perfectionism demon didn’t stop growing. Once I entered the world of college and academia, it seemed to grow to mammoth proportions and was dark as a black hole sucking away every bit of happiness I once enjoyed from music. I’m not sure how it spiraled out of control and how it consumed me. And this blog is not meant to vent my frustrations, but rather bring the demon out to the open in order to slay it.
Perfectionism can be best described as a refusal to take/make/do anything less than perfect. Almost everyone has had to deal with perfectionism at some point in his/her life. Those extra hours of practicing excerpts, recital preparation, competition music, etc. There’s nothing wrong with a healthy dosage of perfectionism. However, an overwhelming amount of it is very unhealthy and difficult to understand, for both the suffering individual and those around him/her.
Imagine a teacher with his student. The teacher is constantly pushing his student to do the best of his abilities, at a cost. The teacher scolds his student constantly for missing a note, not taking proper breath support, not practicing enough, and for being in pain because he’s been over practicing. There doesn’t seem to be any praise for the anything. And slowly, even pursuing music and life itself seems to be a mistake.
Now if this student was your family member or friend, the first thing you’d probably tell him to do would be to leave that teacher’s studio. But imagine that you are the student, and the teacher is your other self, that voice in the back of your head that helps you choose if you want a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or a ham sandwich. It’s not quite that easy to tell yourself to leave your inner teacher.
During one part of my undergraduate years, I was so angry at myself. I even hated myself for my level of musicality and performance. I began to shut off the emotions, slowly but surely. Somewhere in my subconscious, I believed that if I shut off these over-responsive emotions, I might begin to improve musically. In retrospect, it seems very dumb. But at the time, the pressure of being perfect was so great, that I sacrificed everything. And then one day, the music began to stop. I remember playing a Bach Cello Suite for my teacher, and then the notes just stopped. The emotional side, the side that makes art and music what it is, was shut so far away that I couldn’t play. I didn’t forget the notes. And my teacher didn’t understand why, if I knew the notes, I wasn’t playing them. I just wasn’t. I was disconnected, almost from reality itself. At least, I didn’t cry anymore.
At some point, I knew this couldn’t happen anymore. At Peabody Institute, trumpet professor, Joe Burgstaller, would give many master classes on performing. They’d include how to cope with performance anxiety, or how to improve upon your audition preparation. He told me once, after seeing me work with the Peabody Preparatory Tuned-In students and listening to me talk about teaching them, he asked “Be the teacher you are for them for yourself.”
It was such a simple answer. And it has become a mantra for me, a way to remind myself while in the practice room that I need to nurture my psyche as much as I do for my private students and the students I teach.
Unfortunately, the Perfectionism Demon is still hard to manage. Although, I can go and “wood-shed” a piece, I find that the demon is still there taunting my every move:
“Why can’t you sight read that.”
“Your time is horrible.”
“Look at you. You don’t even compare to your colleagues.”
Instead of shutting of the emotions, I’ve been slowly developing a new habit, or rather a new voice. One that is not so cruel. For every little thing I do, this voice praises me for it:
“Alright. You made it to mm=100. Try doing it at mm=120.”
“Instead of beating the notes out, step back and analyze that line. Is there a pattern? Is there a familiar motive?”
“Let’s just play. Don’t think about the time, the stroke, just play.”
One of the things I found most difficult was that many private teachers have no idea how to cope with students who have such a debilitating condition. It’s easy for anyone to understand physical injuries. That type of pain, tendonitis, carpal tunnel, etc., is so easy to talk about. But, when it comes to emotional issues, many teachers are at a loss. Sure, everyone has dealt with bouts of perfectionism. But my personal battle has been a tumultuous one. For those of you reading this, please recognize that this degree of emotional pain can lead to disastrous ends. I am thankful for all my family, friends, and colleagues who have and are helping me through this.