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    What role does perfectionism play in your own life and in your teaching? I find it an elusive goal, but less so with composing, as it is printed and once a piece is polished, it is set down. When you are finally



    I am a perfectionist. I have learned to overcome this as a harpist and a person through the years. What I learned is that I will make mistakes. What matters is how I recover from them.

    I now tell this to my students all the time. Some of them are perfectionists, and I can usually spot it right away. I gently help them to overcome that from the beginning.

    When I first began teaching, I found that I was expecting a level of perfection from my students. I have since come to realize that everyone has different strengths and weaknesses. I spend a lot of time choosing repertoire based on this. I now look at each piece as having one or two key focus points for that student. As long as they master them, I don’t worry about making sure the piece is “perfect”. I have realized it is better to expose them to more music and maintain a certain momentum rather than overworking a piece. It also keeps them more interested…this is especially true with beginners.

    I guess the overall message or lesson for me has been to maximize each student’s strengths. This translates to overall confidence and then the weaknesses are not as important.


    harp guy

    Harp is just my hobby, but here is my experience as a flutist:

    I admit… I’m a perfectionist. But I know when to let off a little and accept what I’ve accomplished as being good enough for the time being. Notice: “For the time being.”

    Perfection is something that can’t be achieved. Ever. And I’ve come to accept that. But that little facet of my personality is what has helped me rise so quickly in my skill as a flutist (going from mediocre high school level playing to a genuine professional level in 3.5 years). Furthermore, perfection is in the eye of the beholder. Once I have a piece technically “perfect” I then mess around with it a little, and make it imperfect. I don’t make mistakes that way, but give the music my own little twist so it isn’t so mechanical. Imperfection is what makes music come alive and thereby you can communicate with an audience.

    When it comes to teaching, I still have a problem with this. But I’ve learned to accept “progress” instead of “perfection.” That is what is important I think. If you only push students and pick, and pick, and pick, you discourage them. You have to teach with love, passion, and wisdom. Perfectionism is not among those qualities. You have to push them to be better or else they might settle for less than they really want. But you can’t do this in a way that it discourages or belittles them. I have found in my experience teaching flute (Harp is just a hobby of mine), that if you strike this balance the students not only think you are quite the task master that never settles, but generally they also become more and more excited for their lessons every week.

    ann reid

    Are there any really serious musicians who are not perfectionists?

    Can one be a serious musician and not be a perfectionist?


    I guess one can always lower one’s standard of what “perfect” is!

    For me, it would be performing a piece without noticable mistakes, a complete flow of idea, without hiccups. I find it is now possible in some pieces in a concert, but the better one piece goes, or one moment, some unexpected wonderfulness, the harder it is to recover from it. It’s harder to recover from something unexpectedly beautiful than a note error. That should be of some comfort to students.


    To me there is a difference between striving to play a piece at a very high level and “being a perfectionist.”

    Striving to play a piece at a very high level means having the technical and musical aspects under control and easily within reach and allowing those elements to form the framework for the performance of the piece. Thus, the performance will be slightly different each time, but mistakes or memory lapses will be minimal and the player can recover and continue in the performance.

    Perfectionism on the other hand can be quite toxic. It means having a rigid interpretation or concept of the piece, and any variation from that is “less than perfect.” When someone is a ‘perfectionist’ it usually means that they are constantly beating themselves up over anything and everything they do, feeling that every effort they make falls short of the mark.

    When a perfectionist is applying these impossible standards to someone else(a student, a spouse, a child) it is even more toxic and can be a form of abuse. It usually means that “my way is better” and therefore perfect.

    The actor Jack Nickolson said(I think making reference to Barbara Streisand): “Just because you’re a perfectionist doesn’t mean you’re perfect.”


    This is an interesting subject. I agrere with Ann…serious musicians always strive to acheive a very high performance level.

    But in my opinion, we define ‘perfect’ more as no mistakes and less as a high level of musicianship. I have been to many concerts where the pieces were executed flawlessly….but left me feeling unsatisfied.

    Conversly, I have attended several performances where I noticed a few mis-steps, but the performer(s) were so passionate and


    I wonder if the prevalence of studio recordings is partly the cause of this. People can’t distinguish between a recording that required several takes, splicing, and maybe some digital enhancement, to a performance by a mere human.

    Now for a story: back in school during finals, there was a presentation by a university counselor on negative ways of thinking. She asked us to talk about some of our own, and we did, all the while hedging so as to sound more well-adjusted with explanations about how we’re working on our problems. Then one student’s term came, and she said “I’m a perfectionist, but I’m a lot better than I used to be.”


    Studio recordings definitely have a lot to do with it. It is well known among pianists that Micheangeli was perhaps the first to be able to do recitals without memory problems, and it launched the craze for everyone to do the same. It has since spread. However, most great artists do make errors. I turned pages for a famous soprano’s pianist once, and I was intrigued to see how she either rewrote the line or reinvented it due to forgetfulness. The audience hadn’t a clue as it was all done with complete conviction and flow.

    I think it helps very much to listen to our mistakes when practicing, to acknowledge and learn from them. It’s not hard to get the notes right, but then the brain immediately seems to say, what happens if I do it this way, or do it wrong this way? That is a chance to figure out how to recover, that’s why we do that. If we use that to our advantage, then we know how to go on from any mistake. The other technique that helps tremendously is to play each note thinking of the following note, not the one you are playing, always focus ahead. Then you know where you are going.


    Perfectionism is a ruthless taskmaster who is never satisfied.

    Karen Johns

    This thread prompts me to recite a line from an inspiring movie I once saw. This man kept reciting the litany “May my good be better, and my better be best” over and over again to himself. Another man helped him see how this was destroying his life, and at the end of the movie he told him “May your good be better, and your better be BLESSED”. May all of our endeavors as musicians and people follow this litany.


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