Perfection, rumination, and process – using mindfulness to deal with musical perfectionism

I am a recovering musical perfectionist. I wasn’t always like this, but somewhere along the way, play became rigor and the standards on which I judged myself became harder and harder to achieve. Originally, I thought my striving for perfection was a performance thing. In other words – outside of playing trombone, I thought I was ok. I didn’t need to be the best at math, writing, cooking, whatever. At the time, I also thought that I would dedicate myself full time to being a performer, so of course, being a perfectionist in that domain would make sense, at least if I wanted to make a living.

Unfortunately, and even though I wasn’t aware of it at the time, perfectionism wasn’t only a performance thing. I began to notice a nagging feeling, perhaps even an internal voice, that told me everything I did needed to be at the highest level, or else … Or else what? I’m still not sure, but there was also an “or else” when I began to teach. It emerged when I began to write – not just papers, but e-mails, notes, even Facebook posts. I also felt it when I spoke – what if I said something grammatically incorrect? What if people could hear an accent?

As I made the transition to a life of teaching, in which performance was still an integral yet secondary pursuit for me, these feelings remained. They continued throughout my development as a conductor, and even now in my work as a researcher and teacher at the university, they emerge at times, reminding me that there is always something better to achieve. Or else …

Dealing with perfectionism has not been easy, nor do I think I’ve conquered this particular challenge. This is why I say I am a recovering perfectionist rather than a cured one. Also, I think that in our culture, many people have an issue understanding the difference between being a perfectionist and having high standards or expectations for your self and others.

First, I think the term “perfectionist” should be clarified. In the psychological literature, a perfectionist is some one who sets goals that are nearly impossible to accomplish. These individuals are also extremely self-critical as well overly concerned with what others think of them. There are studies that link perfectionism to poor self-esteem (Ashby & Rice, 2002), depression and anxiety (Halmi et al., 2000), poor self-regulation (Rudolph et al., 2007), and the inability to maintain positive relationships (Dunkley et al., 2003). Unfortunately, none of these outcomes are particularly conducive to making progress in any line of work, or more importantly, to being happy. So, if the goal is achieving at the highest level, which is indeed what a perfectionists seeks, then perhaps a different approach might be worth considering.

As you might imagine, one of the things that has helped me tremendously in my own struggle with perfectionism has been mindfulness. I think this is because mindfulness encourages us to ground our attention in the present moment. It helps us to deal with what we can control right now rather than what we think might happen in the future. Mindfulness also encourages us to examine the reality of our thoughts and feelings, probing us to question why we believe what we believe, how our beliefs came to be, and if they serve us any useful purpose. Finally, mindfulness encourages choice and acceptance. Out of the many thoughts and feelings spinning in our heads at any given time, why do we choose some over others? Who is in control over what we focus on?

While there are many situations in which perfectionism has been a powerful motivator for me, there are few in which I felt it played a positive role. In one example, I remember hearing from some of my teachers that all great brass players had “perfect” articulations. I wanted so badly to be a great player that I remember spending hours upon hours listening to and trying to imitate how great players started notes. I would then compare myself to them, and being a perfectionist, never quite achieved what I was looking for. Instead of asking myself if I had improved, or if I could try a different approach, or even if there was such a thing as a “perfect” articulation, I continued to strive and strive and strive.

I never reached my goal because of course, the perfect articulation, much like the perfect phrase, tone, etc., does not actually exist outside of our perceptions of what “perfect” might be. Just get three good musicians in a room and ask them to agree on the perfect “anything”, then imagine how things might go.  Instead of examining the fallacy of my own notions, or even why I adopted perfection as a goal in the first place, I beat myself up. I tried harder and harder. I obsessed, lost sleep, lost heart, and at certain points, became so frustrated that I became depressed, angry, and even mean to other people. All over articulations! Or, to be more precise, over my delusional approach towards reality.

Years later, after a lot mindfulness meditation and after a long break from performing, I had the chance to reengage professionally as a player. Upon preparing for a concert, I remember many of the old notions coming back. This time though, it was different. Although I could still feel some internal pressure to be perfect, I asked myself where this was coming from? Is this something I valued, or something that had become a part of me because I somehow associated it with success, or at the very least, with what someone else considered an effective method of improvement? I wondered what “perfect” was, or if it was worth pursuing at the expense of authenticity (maybe there was more than one way to articulate well) or expressivity (maybe there was more than one way to play something artistically).

I then wondered why I was so focused on the future – on what would happen at the concert, or what would happen when my colleagues listened to me, or what would happen when my wife would hear me from the other room? I wondered – in the moment, right now, what could I control, what do I want to accomplish, what could I accomplish? What if all I could do was get better? Would this be enough? Would I be OK?

I also wondered if there was room, in the cavernous and rich expanse of my mind, for a voice that said it was fine to strive for great things, even if we don’t accomplish them. For a voice that said that all the great players were of course terrific, but that they were all different as well. For a voice that said that there is no end point, no perfect place to get to, or no better place than the present moment, which in reality, is the only real thing that we can experience.

In the end, all was fine. I played a good but not a “perfect” concert. My colleagues didn’t seem to notice much of anything because they were thinking about their own performances more than mine. The audience liked it because despite my belief sometimes that I am the center of the universe, they were listening to the orchestra and not the second trombone player’s entrance during measure 25. All was well, and even though the perfectionist in me still came out at times, he was somehow smaller, less powerful, and just one of many voices at my immediate disposal. Actually, during the concert, when I did focus on the present, I also found that the perfectionist had little room to make his voice heard anyway.

As musicians, we exist in a culture that often glorifies perfection, competition, and striving, as though without them, there is just no way to be successful or make a valuable artistic statement. Yet, beyond the platitudes and anecdotes, there is very little to support the notion that striving for perfection, rather than aiming for improvement, is either an effective or even healthy approach. Next time you find yourself striving for perfection, or for other things that are by nature unattainable, take a moment to breathe, reflect, and ask yourself – is this taking me where I really want to go, and if so, is it worth it?

References

Ashby, J. S., & Rice, K. G. (2002). Perfectionism, Dysfunctional Attitudes, and Self‐Esteem: A Structural Equations Analysis. Journal of Counseling & Development80(2), 197-203.

Holtkamp, K., Müller, B., Heussen, N., Remschmidt, H., & Herpertz-Dahlmann, B. (2005). Depression, anxiety, and obsessionality in long-term recovered patients with adolescent-onset anorexia nervosa. European child & adolescent psychiatry14(2), 106-110.

Rudolph, Susan G., Gordon L. Flett, and Paul L. Hewitt. “Perfectionism and deficits in cognitive emotion regulation.” Journal of Rational-Emotive & Cognitive-Behavior Therapy 25, no. 4 (2007): 343-357.

Dunkley, David M., Kirk R. Blankstein, Robin M. Masheb, and Carlos M. Grilo. “Personal standards and evaluative concerns dimensions of “clinical” perfectionism: A reply to Shafran et al.(2002, 2003) and Hewitt et al.(2003).”Behaviour Research and Therapy 44, no. 1 (2006): 63-84.

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