Perfection or Performance? It's Your Choice

This post was first published on November 5, 2012. Updated on June 21, 2021.

The world doesn’t reward perfection. It rewards productivity.” – Peter Bregman, author of 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done

I imagine something like this has happened to you, as it has to me: You have heard a great concert, a performance that moved you and inspired you. You rush to greet the players afterward to thank and congratulate them. But instead of hearing the compliment, they meet your enthusiasm with regrets about the things that went wrong. Whose idea of “perfect” matters here?

And what if the performer’s desire to present as “perfect” a performance as possible had prevented him from playing at all? It doesn’t matter how good you sound in the practice room, if that’s where you stay. The person in the room next door may not play as well, but if she is out there playing for others, she will hear the audience cheering, “Bravo!” There’s no bravo in the practice room.

Picture a student recital. Little children zoom fearlessly through their prepared pieces. Mistakes don’t bother them. They are playing for people who will clap and cheer for them, and they are happy. Older students and adults, whether beginners or advanced students, often have to steel their nerves before playing. Mistakes matter to them. They want to do well. I remember one piano recital at which my mother, when her turn came, had to tell the teacher that she couldn’t play. She wasn’t unprepared, just nervous.

I don’t know that my mother was a perfectionist. But I know that in some areas important to me, I am. And I fight it every day.

The painful truth is that perfectionism smothers creativity. Any creative endeavor requires freedom to experiment, freedom to explore and freedom to fail. Musical perfection not only doesn't exist; it is a contradiction in terms. 

Do either or both of these statements sound familiar?

1. I’m not ready to do that yet. (My technique needs to be better, or I have to study longer, etc., before I’m ready.) 
2. I don’t think it’s good enough yet. (I learned it, or recorded it, or played it, but it’s not good enough for the general public.)

If so, then you may be allowing some degree of perfectionism to prevent you from finishing or playing your pieces. When will you be ready? When will it be good enough?

The perfectionist's answer is, “Someday.” Someday he will be ready, someday she will finish it, someday it will be good enough. The perfectionist never gets it done.

Here are three tips I use to keep me moving from “Someday” to “Done!”

1. Failure is always an option. Start with that understanding. If we don’t try, we won’t fail. But anything worth trying is worth failing at.
2. You don’t have to put your best foot forward. Any old foot will do. As in so many things, one step at a time is the way to accomplish something. If all your steps are small, but frequent and in one direction, you will get off the starting block and begin the journey to “Done!”
3. Listen to the opinions of people you trust. Your teacher’s idea of when you are performance-ready is one you can trust. You probably have close friends who are musicians who can give honest critique of your efforts. The people closest to you want to see you succeed. And their perspective is probably more balanced than yours.

Let’s not forget the biggest price we pay for perfectionism. It’s not just being unhappy with our performance, or taking too long to prepare a piece. What we lose is the fun, the pleasure, the reason we started playing music in the first place. Music exists beyond ourselves. It is inspiring in spite of our mistakes. It is communication between souls. But only when we get out there and do it.

Some resources you might enjoy:

Beating Perfectionism, Procrastination and Paralysis, by life coach Mark Strong

The Inner Game of Music, by Barry Green and Timothy Gallwey

Listen to my podcast episode about finishing your pieces


50% Complete

Two Step

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua.