Rejecting Perfection

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perfectionPerfection has its good points, I guess. I wouldn’t know because I’ve never been there.

Perfection appears to us as an ideal, our Mount Olympus, the place we strive for. It is that ever-elusive musical rabbit we chase in each practice session and every performance.

But is perfection really a suitable goal for a musician?

Perfection isn’t just a nearly impossible task. I believe that a “perfect” musical performance doesn’t exist …and shouldn’t.

That’s not to say that I haven’t heard performances that I considered flawless and ideal. But as a performer myself, I can say that even when I get all the notes right, there is always some musical detail I know I could have handled better. Following that thought further, if I hear perfection, but you didn’t feel you played perfectly, can perfection really exist?

But let’s be a little less philosophical and a little more practical.

Perfection in the usual sense is mostly about eliminating errors. Perfection is static. It is the flawless performance that you hear on a recording that has been edited and produced to create the best possible product.

Perfection doesn’t allow for the creative moment, that instant of inspiration that propels us to try something we haven’t attempted before.

As I’ve been watching the Olympics this week and marveling in the record-breaking moments, I have noticed something interesting. Although the carefully rehearsed and practiced skills can be beautiful to watch, the moments that excite the crowds, commentators and even the viewers at home are the ones when the athlete takes a risk and “pulls it off,” even if the landing is a little shaky or the methods clearly improvised.

The beauty isn’t in a flawless performance as much as it is in the efforts of the performer to excel, to go one step further, to give just a little more.

That’s where our striving for “perfection” becomes a limiting belief rather than a worthy goal. Consider these limitations of perfection:

Perfection is static. Music happens in the moment.

Perfection is a presentation. Performance is a gift.

Perfection is a dead end. Music is filled with creative possibilities.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s a huge difference between a performance that isn’t perfect and one that is a hot mess. You still have to practice.

What are we reaching for then?

You have made [human beings] for a little while lower than the angels; you have crowned them with glory and honor…      Hebrews 2:7

This Bible verse refers to humans as being, albeit temporarily, “a little lower than the angels.” In a similar vain, I would suggest that we strive for “a little lower than” perfection, in fact – imperfection.

For instance, what if we looked at our imperfection as a state of growth, part of the process of our development as a musician? If we take that viewpoint, here are the resulting changes to the “perfection” statements above.

Imperfection is a state of change. We grow through study, lessons and practice, seeking to play our music with more skill, creativity and joy.

Imperfection allows us to share with generosity. Performance is no longer about ourselves and our abilities. It is about bringing music to the lives of those around us and allowing them to share in our musical journey, wherever we happen to be at that moment.

Imperfection is about exploration. It is full of “what-ifs:” what if I try this fingering, what if I try this style of music, what if I try to play faster, softer, louder, more expressively. Imperfection is revelation.

What will change for you if you decide to enjoy a state of imperfection?

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  • Nanci

    I really liked and resonated with this blog post. Thank you!! I’m a recovering perfectionist thanks to my upbringing and it’s a constant stumbling block for me.


  • Rob Stone

    Yes, good topic Anne. I had a student who used to laugh when she made a mistake and I always thought it was great to not get too upset with yourself when things didn’t come out perfectly, or you kept on going when you did make a mistake! I think of the book Zen and the Art of Archery, where the important thing is the process of learning, the form, not hitting the bulls eye!


  • Rebekah Hou

    Great post. I struggle with perfectionism in practice and performance as well (even though I know I shouldn’t!) Thank you for the reminder and wonderful Bible reference!

    P.S. Are you a Christian too?


  • Alison

    I loved this post. I have found that when I stop trying to play perfectly I enjoy my harp so much more. In particular the sentence “Imperfection is a state of change” resonated with me . Thankyou Anne.


  • Darlene

    Thank you – Anne. I really needed this blog. I struggled with this issue. I never want to play for anyone as I feel that my music is never good enough.
    I must keep reading this – everyday!


  • Karen DeBraal

    Very validating. I do strive to avoid the hot mess, to practice and to give a gift when I play. But I always have this fantasy of arriving at my lesson and playing without a single flaw for my teacher. Your essay helps me realize it is OK and worthy to realize the what-ifs and possibilities of the ever-changing tao of music.


  • Kara Dahl Russell

    Anne – You know I always enjoy your writing and insights. I had to laugh because I recently had a new music performance where a duet went well, a piece I play all the time was simply not up to par, and a brand new work was – in my opinion – a hot mess. (I live with and care for elderly parents, and my father was going through a period where his dementia and some physical issues were worsening, and it was impossible to get uninterrupted, focused, practice. I decided to drop out of another performance a few weeks later for the same reasons.) I knew the central section of the 3rd piece – scherzo in 3 against 4 – was simply not ready. A brilliant pianist friend of mine was doing a paired piece by the same composer after mine, so while I could have just said “I know it’s not ready, so I’m cutting this,” I made the decision to just do it as best I could. Surprisingly, there was an incredible freedom in understanding that I had done the best practice I could, I was not in peak form, had not had peak practice, but I was going to just put it out there and let it be. I also knew that instead of resting on technical perfection, that if this piece was to work at all, I had to be FULLY emotionally invested in the story of the piece, and let that carry any flaws.

    What I learned from this was really wonderful. I heard/saw a video of my performance of this piece, and I was confirmed in my assessment that – from my perspective – it was a hot mess. But even the other musicians viewed it differently…. one of the blessings of new music is that few people, if any, know what it is supposed to sound like! The friend who played the companion piece (brilliantly) thought it was fine – (she had even reviewed the video), she knew the sound world of this composer. Another brilliant pianist greeted me in such a way that I knew that SHE knew I had struggled with it, but she gave me credit for the performance, and yet another performer – a singer who sang an extremely difficult/dissonant piece – said he understood it was an extremely difficult piece, but that he appreciated the story/insight I had given to the work before playing it, and that I had fulfilled that. It wasn’t all glory, but the whole was much greater than the sum of the parts.

    I still think of that as an awful performance, so imagine my surprise at being greeted by a music student (students who are trained to listen critically) 3 months later who talked about how much they enjoyed my performance, and much preferred my pieces to anything else in the program! It is a testament to something I always say – there is something about live performance that rises above individual flaws – there is the flow of the moment. While I still strive for perfection in practice, I take comfort in the words of Jean Renoir “Technical perfection in art is boring.”


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