“You can be anything you want to be,” the teachers at school promised. “If you work hard enough you could have a musical career,” my piano teacher said. Carefully I mapped out the repertoire I planned to learn, the prizes I would win, the orchestras I would play with as a soloist. I thought this map combined with hundreds of practice hours was my way to becoming the perfect concert pianist.
An ever-stronger critical voice accompanied my musical development. You were 1/8 of a beat too early, you didn’t practice that fingering enough so you’ve failed, you haven’t learned that sonata fast enough. You’re never good enough. My teenage self believed perfection could be obtained, if only I tried hard enough and ruthlessly kicked myself when I failed.
One note at a time, I learned to relax into the harp and the music, slowly letting go of the judgment.
Music touched my soul. I wanted to share it with others, but couldn’t because my music was imperfect, flawed, and not note-perfect. I hated my musical self because she could not obtain perfection. At the age of 18 I walked away from a piano scholarship to a small college because I wanted a performance degree from a top university, nothing less would do. My level of talent did not match my dream, and I refused to adjust my goals.
Over the years, I played less and less until I found myself an adult living without a piano. I met a woman at a Renaissance festival playing a lap harp. It brought back memories of my pre-piano days plucking out tunes on a very small harp in the music shop where my older sisters took their lessons. A week later I had a rental harp and teacher.
At first I stepped straight into my old mindset: I would play the harp perfectly. My young teacher, a student herself at the conservatory, looked at my posture and cocked her head. She paused to formulate her thoughts and then said compassionately, “You need to relax, you can’t play with that tension. What’s making you so tense to begin with?” Thus began my journey of unlearning perfection.
Changing a habit ingrained from childhood can be a lifelong process. That music critic had a wealth of critical friends, all of them seeking perfection, all prepared with a negative litany.
When you have a sore shoulder, you go to the doctor or a physiotherapist to help you fix the problem. When you have a perfectionist switch stuck on full volume there are self-help books, counselors, and therapists. I tried them all, and they all helped with little steps forward.
My teacher graduated and moved to another city, so I decided to take some lessons in improvisation with a local jazz musician. Pops Wilson moved like a blues tune—calm and confident with a strong and true inner rhythm.
First he asked me to play for him. “Girl, you stop breathing when you touch the harp—why is that?” I explained my perfection problem. He laughed, low and easy, “You need to learn that music is fun.” He drew the word out into two syllables, “Fuh-un. But I understand, you had one of those old classical teacher types who put the fear of mistakes into you.” He thought for a moment and suggested, “How ’bout you just lean your harp against your shoulder and breathe with the music while I play my vibraphone. When you’re ready just play a D—any D in whatever rhythm you want. Wherever that D lands it will be perfect. There is no wrong note.” His method worked. One note at a time, I learned to relax into the harp and the music, slowly letting go of the judgment.
I found folk music groups where everyone learns to play through musical hiccups and spontaneous improvisations around them. One of those folk musicians caught my heart and became a partner in marriage, music, and the quest to be less critical.
A few years after my venture into improvisation it happened: In a café, relaxed and happy, I played my harp for a Saturday afternoon crowd, the murmur of voices faded and the people stilled as they tuned into the melody. For the first time I felt the connection building between the audience and me. Some people smiled, one cried, and the children stared in rapturous wonder. When I stopped, a poignant moment of silence resonated before the applause. Released from perfection, I had finally reached what I had always desired—sharing music through my heart.
Time brings perspective to life and wisdom to those willing to learn from experience. It’s taught me that my harp playing is all about loving music. Sure, I take lessons and have performance targets, but I always remember the most important goals: don’t take yourself too seriously and enjoy the learning process. When I hear that inner critic starting to list all my imperfections, I laugh and replay Pop’s voice in my head saying, “Have fuh-un with the music.” •