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Process vs. Perfectionism, and Still Having High Standards

This is for all of you who get frustrated while practicing, avoid practicing entirely, or are just generally mean to yourselves about practicing - which includes having really, really, REALLY high expectations for yourself all the time.

This is for everyone who comes in apologizing to me for not practicing!

This is for everyone who is nervous when I ask if they want to work on a song they already know and like, because the way they work on things means they might not enjoy that song any more.

It's an episode of the amazing Noa Kageyama's podcast, Bulletproof Musician, called On the Perils of Perfect Practice.

The page has a complete transcript of the episode - so if you aren't a fan of podcasts, you can skim the transcript for things of interest! You can also listen to the audio -- or watch the video if you like seeing human faces!

My favourite bit:

About 2/3 through the episode Noa asks whether musicians, students, or parents are ever resistant to the idea of letting go of the idea of being perfect. Psychologist Ellen Hendrikson responds:

"...Often I will very explicitly say, we're not going to lower your standards. We want you to have high standards. Like, keep striving for excellence. Keep trying to do well... But we do want to lower the pressure, because that is the thing that is toxic. "The difference between perfectionists and non perfectionists is that non perfectionists still strive for excellence, there's still those high standards, but there's not that pressure and there's not that contingent self worth. There's not that, conflation of who they are and what they do and so mistakes aren't personal."

Simpsons meme. Bus driver: Don't make me tap the sign. Sign: Perfection is the enemy of excellence
Don't make me tap the sign.

There are a lot of other fantastic points in the episode - stuff like the fact that people aiming for perfection become so reluctant to make any mistake they stop doing the thing they were trying to become perfect at! And the fact that "outsourcing our self-worth" by looking for approval from a teacher or parent or other authority figure has some pretty terrible potential consequences! But I frequently hear the conflation of perfectionism with high standards, so that was the part that stood out to me today.

Another standout element was the theme of flexibility. A musician who practices for "perfection" can end up in a heck of a rut, unable to adapt to the needs of an ensemble or situation, unlikely to try new creative ideas for fear of making mistakes or because they feel different and therefore potentially "wrong".

It's not a recipe for a lifelong music maker -- much less one who can work collaboratively or take coaching.

Finally, the idea of focusing on process rather than perfection ties in perfectly with my thoughts about teaching and and my responsibilities as a teacher. It comes down to leaving students with tools they can use on their own for the rest of their lives, rather than with a list of songs they've learned "perfectly". My students often spend lesson time working on their vocal usage and musicianship rather than polishing repertoire. If someone's top priority is polishing repertoire, that's fine - but if it isn't their specific goal, we're more likely to opt for process, and apply that process to repertoire. My hope is always that when they move on, or take a break from lessons, they will still be able to have an ongoing vocal practice that they enjoy.



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