Perfectionism Isn’t All Bad–What?!

Chances are, since you are on this website and you are reading this article, you have struggled with perfectionism or perfectionist tendencies. As you may already know, perfectionism can ruin self-confidence, cause you to get frustrated easily, and is a major source of music performance anxiety. We usually focus  on the aspects of perfectionism that hold performers back, but it is important for musicians to learn to balance the flip-side—the advantages—of perfectionism with the disadvantages.

Advantages of Perfectionism

Perfectionism isn’t all bad. Ok, I’ve said it—there are advantages or positive aspects of being a perfectionist. Perfectionists have many things in common with great performers. Both have a great practice attitude, are highly motivated individuals who are very coachable, and they work diligently to be the best. Another positive attribute of perfectionists is that they set very high goals. They are highly committed and won’t accept mediocrity.

“Perfectionism is like the spice in a stew. A dash is fine, but too much can ruin it!” -Bob Rotella, sports psychologist

Where perfectionism turns ugly and tends to hold performers back is when the musician can’t turn off that self-critical voice and need for correctness that works so well in the practice room, but cripples them on stage during performance. Although they have many things in common, great performers differ from perfectionists in several key ways. Effective performers not only have a great practice mindset, but they also trust their practice for performance instead of continuously self-coaching and correcting. Great performers are also highly motivated and set goals for their practice, but they stay away from strict or high expectations for performance.

If you are a perfectionist and you are not happy with your performing or the way trying to be perfect makes you feel, you may need to look at your attitude toward performing. Is it working for you?  Do you really need to try to work so hard at improving your technique or do you need to address the attitude and beliefs you have about performing? Maybe it’s not about having a perfect technique. Maybe it’s not about trying so hard or about pleasing others. I am reminded of what world-class cellist and conductor, Mstislav Rostropovich was quoted to have said,

“I would rather have ideas and some difficulties of technique than a perfect technique and no ideas.”

Perfectionists desperately want to succeed, their self-worth is often tied directly to performance, they want to feel good about themselves, and they become very emotionally invested in performing well. No amount of technical practice will fix these issues. If you perform well in practice, but crumble after making mistakes or are very motivated and work hard in practice, but can’t seem to translate your practice confidence into performance confidence you might very well benefit from talking with someone about addressing the fears and limiting beliefs that drive you.

Do you struggle with balancing or managing your perfectionist tendencies?  If so, leave me a comment.  I’d love to hear what you have to say.

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  1. Martin Hodgson says:

    Hi, i’m going through a crippling stage of low confidence at the moment, i find my self not liking anything i play, i’ve had hand injuries from practicing too much before so you can call me a perfectionist, its got to a stage where it’s really perfecting my performances, any advice?

    • Dr. Diana Allan says:

      Martin, you are not alone. I, and many performers, empathize with what you are going through. Many performers have strict or unrealistically high expectations of their playing or performing. These kind of expectations drive the joy out of our playing and result in low confidence. Perfectionists tend to think that more practice will lead to better performing. Makes sense, doesn’t it? Well, better practice leads to better performing. Practice needs to develop trust in your abilities and skills. Please let me know if you would like to talk more about this.

  2. Hi, I have just started a new job as a principal wind player in a large orchestra. I suddenly feel a lot of pressure to perform well to achieve tenure and a level a respect from my new colleagues. They tell me often about my predecessor and how wonderful a player he was before his retirement. I can play very well in the practice room and quite well in rehearsals, but concerts seem to be sabotaged. I get in a fog and cannot hear the music, I just hear the voices in my head. Any encouraging words for me?

    • Dr. Diana Allan says:

      Congratulations on your new position. In order to have been named principal in a large orchestra, you have certainly risen to the top of a very elite group of players no doubt through a rigorous audition process. It is not unusual for elite performers who have a strong desire to excel to try too hard, doubt that they will live up to others’ or their own expectations, and fail to trust themselves in performance or competition. Your intention is good—to perform well, but I suspect that those “voices” in your head are nagging thoughts of impressing fellow players and fulfilling their expectations, and living up to the former principal’s playing. These thoughts accompanied by your strong desire to succeed are what cause you try too hard and fail to trust yourself and your ability in concert. Performers with perfectionist tendencies often have high practice confidence, but need to trust their skills for a stronger performance confidence. In your next practice and rehearsal sessions, treat at least a portion of each session as a concert performance. What I mean by this is to let go of conscious control over results and correctness and focus on having fun with the music. Performance trust is the absence of expectations and judgments. As you shift your focus away from results and from others’ or your own expectations and onto trusting your performing, you will find it easier to rely on instincts and go with the music. Keep me posted!

  3. Hello. I am an extreme perfectionist in every aspect of my life, including my music. I’ve been playing Concerto in D Major by Mozart, and I can’t seem get past the first page during my practice time. Do you have any musician’s advice? Usually I can manage to pull myself together and move on, but I am usually so unhappy with the beginning that I spend three hours on three lines, and I know it’s hurting my playing over-all.

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