Excellence vs. Perfection

(reprinted from Studio Newsletter Spring 2009)

Recently, I encountered two students whose behavior concerned me a little.  The first was at district Solo & Ensemble.  A very talented girl from a local double-reed studio was crying outside the judge's room after performing her solo.  To see her, one would think that she played poorly, but quite the contrary - she earned a gold medal on a very difficult solo.  The tears were shed over a couple of very minor mistakes, and her friends were dumbfounded.  The second was in a weekly percussion class.  This student was very bright, answered questions very well, but became very upset when she didn't play her part exactly right on the first try, even to the point of refusing to play and saying, "I can't do it."

What is it that upset these two students so much?  They expected perfection.  Under pressure or on the first attempt, it didn't matter - it should have been perfect.  The problem with perfectionism is that it robs us of the enjoyment of performing.  We become so bogged down with every minute, trivial detail that the slightest variance distracts us and makes us believe we are less because we made a mistake.  

OK, here come the questions: Mrs. Peters, we're always working on details in lessons.  You want every rhythm counted, every note played correctly, so what's the difference?  The difference is, I want you to be excellent, not perfect.  Excellence is still giving your very best effort, sometimes even beyond your very best effort, without the unrealistic expectation of perfection.  Excellence means working hard, preparing well, and forming high goals for yourself.  Perfection is playing every note, every rhythm, every dynamic in tune, on time, every day, every performance, without regard to environment or circumstance.  I do not expect this from my students because, in the words of Alexander Pope, "to err is human."

The two sound so closely related, and it seems like perfection isn't such a bad thing.  Why not go for it?  Be fantastic, be great, be excellent - go for it.  But beware, I've met many a musician who gave up altogether because the task of being perfect was just too much.  It's simply not fair to demand perfection of yourself, and it's not fun, either.  You might be so distracted by missing a single accidental that you don't remember how beautifully the passage beforehand was played.  Sure, if you caught it, then try to correct it for next time, but it's no reason to become distraught. 

Remember that making music is an art and art is expressive and emotional.  Don't reduce it to a tally of how many mistakes you made, and certainly not to points on a score sheet.  Play your best AND remember that music is meant to be touching and enjoyable for the musician as well as the audience.  No one (including you) will remember that you missed an F#, but you will all remember a performance delivered with overall preparation and expressive vigor.