Mindfulness and Musical Perfectionism – the hidden costs of chasing after an often unexamined illusion

What is perfection? If someone asked you to describe your own idea of perfection, what would you say?

For many musicians, ideas about perfection often lie on some continuum between internally imposed and externally influenced idealizations about musical competency. Furthermore, these idealizations are by definition abstractions rather than the thing itself. The perfect note, phrase, or performance does not actually exist outside of our own relative notions of what perfection is and should sound like. Despite this, many musicians spend an enormous amount of energy pursuing perfection, often becoming obsessed to the point of harming their own physical and mental health.

Let’s imagine for a moment that you are practicing a passage from an incredibly difficult piece. Also, imagine that your practice session is going well, and that you are accomplishing some of your goals. As the passage gets better and better, you become aware of your internal dialogue. It might sound something like this …

“Wow, that came out well, wasn’t expecting that. Feeling pretty happy about my playing right now.”

If you are a perfectionist though, this temporary burst of happiness will be short lived, and it won’t be long before you start to think like this …

“Yeah, that was good, but (insert incredible musician here) can play it faster, cleaner, and with a much better sound.”

Then the real difficulties begin.

“Wow, even after all that work, I still don’t sound as good as … What if this happens everyday? What if I still sound like this next week? I’ll probably never win a job, or get invited to the next gig, or … everyone will think I suck. What’s wrong with me?”

If this sounds familiar, then you are also probably acquainted with what usually happens next, in which our anger, self-loathing, or apathy pretty much derail any of our attempts at meaningful improvement. Even with the best intentions for a great practice session, it is difficult and often impossible to escape our own unexamined notions of perfection, especially when they are the primary motivational force behind our actions and desires.

In the end, despite whatever progress you think you might have made, nothing can ever be perfect, so it becomes impossible to appraise your situation as anything other than inadequate. For many, this assessment triggers an unending stream of negative thoughts and emotions. Unfortunately, since perfection is something that we can neither attain nor ultimately control, there is no way to stop this line of rumination.

So what’s the problem? Well, while goals and aspirations are a natural and even healthy part of our development as musicians, an unhealthy obsession with the future puts us at odds with the only thing that we ever really have any knowledge or control of. And that of course, is the present moment. Ironically, our very obsession with the future blinds us to what may be actually occurring, and without knowing where we are, musically or otherwise, it is pretty difficult to chart a useful course to somewhere else. Mindfulness, with its emphasis on examining our immediate experience in an open and non-judgmental manner, provides us with a way of looking at our experience in a more honest, healthy, and direct way.

Lets examine an alternative approach to our obsession with perfection. What if we took the time to pause and reflect on our immediate experience in an open and non-judgmental way? One way to approach this is to be mindful of the goals, processes, environments, and methods of evaluation that we use in engaging in and assessing our own practice. How often do we pause to question what we are doing, why we are doing it, and what we want out of our experience? Rather than approaching our practice mindlessly, without examining the nature or efficacy of the dispositions that we bring into the practice room, how can we examine our situation in a more honest and less reactive way?

In a previous blog post, I suggested that creating and referencing a list of reflective questions before, during, and after practice might serve as a useful means of cultivating mindfulness. What was not addressed, however, was a way of slowing down enough to induce a state conducive to reflection. Specifically, reflection that allows for a realistic but non-reactive assessment of the processes and progress that may occur during practice, and which, while not denying the need and benefits of clear goals and aspirations, allows us the opportunity to examine what is before us rather than obsessing with what might be. Indeed, this obsession of what might be, especially when unrealistic and when coupled with damaging self-criticism, is precisely what characterizes unhealthy levels of perfectionism.

Inducing this state is difficult however, and as I have noted in my own practice and in conversations with other musicians, attaining a mindful or reflective state may require some degree of physiological scaffolding for many people. Recently, I have been experimenting with incorporating breathing exercises before engaging in mindfulness activities, both within my own practice as well as when facilitating group and individual sessions. Interestingly, there is emerging research suggesting that how we breathe may have a measurable and significant effect on how we process memory and emotions, and thus engaging in these practices may have more than just anecdotal support.

Below, I offer my own adaptation of the popular 4-7-8 breathing exercise, coupled with a mindfulness exercise that can be used to facilitate a more contemplative state. The 4-7-8 exercise has been promoted by complementary and alternative health practitioners for a number of years, and it has been encouraging to see some research supporting its potential efficacy as a means of giving us some control over our physiological state. Whether used alone or in conjunction with reflective questioning, I believe this practice may help alleviate some of the unnecessary rumination caused by the kind of unhealthy perfectionistic obsessions experienced by many musicians, as it puts us square in the middle of the only thing we can ever really experience or have any direct control over – the quality of our present moment.

Breathing Preparation for Mindfulness

Sit or lay down in a comfortable position. Make sure body is fluid and flexible to allow for deep, unobstructed breathing. Take four to five breaths using the following pattern …

  • Exhale all of the air in your body.
  • Inhale deeply through your nose for 4 counts.
  • Hold your breath for 7 counts.
  • Exhale for 8 counts.
  • After the exercise has been completed, spend 1-4 minutes attending to the sensations of your breath without interfering.
  • As sensations and associations arise, rather than push them away, simply notice them and label them as they enter your focus of attention. For example, “feeling tension in my stomach”, “my hands are sweaty”, “feeling anxious”, “feeling scared”, “thinking about the future”.
  • Do not fixate on any sensation or association. Instead, acknowledge each experience, label it, and return your attention to your breath for as long as possible.
  • At the conclusion of the exercise, declare an intention to bring this quality of openness, present-moment awareness, and curiosity to your next activity, whether it be practice or some aspect of guided reflection.
  • If perfectionistic concerns begin to interfere with either your practice or reflection, repeat the exercise until you feel you have some sense of control or healthy psychological distance from these concerns. Remember, it is not the aspiration to be better that is the problem, rather the obsession with unrealistic ideas about perfection coupled with negative self-regard that we are trying to reframe with a more present-centered, less-judgmental, and realistic awareness.
  • Acknowledge that freeing yourself from these concerns is a process, and that they will likely never fully disappear. However, over time and through deliberate practice, you can gain a great deal of control over how you frame these concerns and on their potential effect on the overall quality of your practice.
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