Where Perfection Meets Possible

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perfectionPerfectionism has a bad reputation.

We have heard about all the evils of perfectionism – the frustration, the self-doubt, the endless critiquing.

But is perfectionism the same thing as trying to get your piece correct, trying to make it right and without mistakes?

And if we allow that we can’t achieve perfection, what’s the point in trying? Do we stop practicing at some point and say, “Never mind, it’s good enough?”

More to the point, if even the masters of our instrument don’t feel that they deliver perfect performances, where does that leave the rest of us?

I believe that there is a balancing point, a way to keep that impossibly high standard before us without sacrificing our sanity. I think that we need to work at a place I’m calling the intersection of The Perfect and The Possible.

Imagine yourself standing in a circle. This circle is your musical progress at this point in time. You have some pieces you can play, but you have more you want to accomplish. Perhaps you struggle in your practice, or your technique needs work. Maybe it takes you a long time to learn a piece and even then, you can’t play it without mistakes. This is where you are now.

But just over there, close enough that you can see it, is another circle. Inside that circle the music is perfect. There are no mistakes, no misplaced fingers, no wrong notes. The music is expressive and filled with feeling. . It looks beautiful, radiant, glowing with all the colors of the rainbow.

The only problem is that the second circle isn’t real. You can’t touch it. Just like a real rainbow, you can put your hand through it, but you couldn’t grab hold of it, even if you could reach it. Every time you try to touch it, it moves a little farther away, just beyond your grasp.

But then you discover a curious thing. Every time you play music inside your own circle, the rainbow circle gets brighter. And over time as you continue to practice and learn, the rainbow circle sometimes shoots rays of light over to you. At last you realize that the circle isn’t somewhere out there where you can’t reach it. The circle is coming to you in bits of light and color.

That’s because perfection isn’t possible. It isn’t real. But it is possible for you to make your music glow with that rainbow light. This is how you find that intersection point between perfection and possible.

  1. Continue to develop your understanding and appreciation the fine points of music. Beyond the notes and the rhythms, learn about the means and reasons of musical expression. Listen to the great performers and try to hear and articulate what makes their performances special.
  2. Increasingly incorporate those elements in your daily work. Make your practice about becoming a better musician, not just a better note player. Even the simplest music will benefit with thoughtful preparation. You don’t have to be a great artist to try to play like one.
  3. Never settle for less than you can do, not what you might do or should do, but what you actually are able to do. Strive to do your best (not someone else’s best) and understand that your best is good enough for right now.
  4. Always remember that you are not pursuing perfection, you are pursuing growth. Growth over time, even in small increments, will make those flashes of light that look like the ones in the rainbow circle.

Put aside your impatience and your frustration with what you can’t achieve, at least not right now. Tomorrow, next week, next month, next year, who knows?

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  • Nancy saunders

    Lovely and useful thoughts, Anne. Thanks. Nancy S


  • Lynda

    Thank you! Wonderful thoughts to push away frustration and invite pleasure in practice.


    • Jean

      When I compare myself with other harpist, I feel like giving up. They all seem so much more talented and experienced than me. But when I compare myself to myself–even just a few months ago–I am encouraged, because I do see progress. One small increment at a time!


  • Rena Solis

    This was so reassuring for an elderly beginner (and perfectionist) like myself. Now I will take a deep breath and enjoy the music where I am. Rena


  • Jacquie T

    Interesting perspective to be sure. Would make practicing much less stressful and much more enjoyable. Smaller attainable goals are key.


  • Carol

    Wow-this is great advice for most endeavors in our daily lives. I’ll bet people would be much happier if they approached their days this way! Thanks for putting these thoughts together.


  • becca

    I really needed to hear this today.


  • Rob Stone

    Yes, Anne. always good thoughts! I like the “rainbow” analogy because I occasionally get flashes of “what could be” when I play. That motivates me to keep working at it! I think Woody Allen said, in one of his movies, that’s why people write stories, because the author can write happy endings, etc., and in real life, the outcome is not always predictable. Do your best, try hard, but don’t be too tough on yourself if it doesn’t come out perfect!


  • Suzanne Sourwine

    I have been playing/taking lessons for about 4 years and played in church several times either as a duet with a professional harpist or as solos – but only after 6 months of intensely preparing the pieces. I was recently asked to play at the funeral of a dear friend and reluctantly agreed – partially after reflecting on this blog. I played two pieces that I had learned for church last summer and could re-polish. I played them at the funeral and although the first piece was not perfect, the second had no major errors. BUT, I was actually pleased with my performance because of this blog. It wasn’t perfect but it was good. I was able to graciously accept the compliments on my playing after the service and actually believe them for the first time.


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