Perfection is Impossible: Classical Music Edition



It’s the beginning of my Master’s recital, and I’m working my way through the Bach E Major Partita. Things seem to be going well so far. I’ve been pretty apprehensive about this recital because I took a year off between undergrad and grad school, so I haven’t played a solo recital in 3 years. I’m out of practice with performing, and my last recital I spent the entire day in bed wrapped in a haze of anxiety. I’m in a better headspace this time, but I still feel extremely rusty.


But as I’m working through the Loure, something starts to change. Everytime I perform (and I’m sure many, many musicians can relate), a little voice in the back of my head says,


“What if you mess up?”


“What if you play a wrong note?”


“If you play out of tune, everyone is going to think you’re a bad violinist.”


“If you have a memory slip, everyone is going to think you’re unprepared.”


“If you mess up, do you really deserve this degree?”


The little voice starts up, a quiet murmur of doubt and concern. I try to ignore it, but it’s getting more and more persistent, louder and louder. It’s starting to say things like, “Wow, you haven’t done this in a while, right? This is the culmination of your entire master’s degree. It would be a real shame if you screwed something up.”


And lo and behold, as I reach the middle of the second section of the Loure, I just... stop.


My brain is blank. It’s like there’s nothing going on. I’ve played this movement so many times in the last year, but I can’t for the life of me think of what comes next. So I do the only thing I know how to do. I go all the way back to the beginning of the section and try again.


And I reach the same point, and my brain goes blank again, because it’s anticipating that spot, and I go back the beginning yet again. I’ll spare you the painful details, but essentially I stopped and restarted quite a few times before eventually giving up and moving on to the next movement.


Frankly, I couldn’t tell you how the rest of the partita went. I think I went into full survival mode, just trying to make it to the end of the piece, feeling so ashamed and embarrassed that I had just done that in front of my friends, family, teachers, and studio mates in the audience. It felt like everything that little voice of doubt had said was true. I was a bad violinist, I didn’t deserve this degree, and everyone was judging me.




In academia, we’re surrounded by pressure. We have the pressure of classes, rehearsals, recitals, gigs, lessons, and everything else that comes with being a student. We have the pressure of thinking about career options after school. And especially in music, we have the pressure to be the best - to be perfect. We’re told that only perfection wins jobs, only perfection can lead to success. We’re surrounded by perfect recordings and other accomplished players, and it’s so, so easy to compare yourself to other people, their playing, and their achievements.


The desire and pressure to be perfect can become unbearable. Often this pressure focuses on one performance - an end of year or degree recital. We work on the same repertoire for the semester or year leading up to it, and it frequently feels like everything is riding on this one performance. The cumulative effort of months of preparation, plus the weight of significance we put on that performance, often leads to detrimental consequences like depressive and/or anxiety symptoms or disorders, physical injuries due to over-practicing, burnout, or quitting music altogether.


 

So how do we overcome this? How do we get that little voice to shut up? How can we remind ourselves that the thing we’re striving for - that “perfect” performance - is actually unrealistic?


I won’t pretend to have all the answers, but I believe that there are a couple different things we can remind of ourselves when tackling perfectionism and performance anxiety.


First, we must acknowledge that as artists, we frequently tie our self-worth to our careers. Somehow, we turn “am I a good musician?” into “am I a good person?” Music and art are deeply personal, and in an already over-romanticized field, it’s easy to make music encompass your entire personality, life, and feelings of value. But I think it’s important to remember that while music may be a huge part of your life, there is more to you than just being a musician. You might be a sibling, someone’s child, someone’s parent, someone’s partner, someone’s friend. You might also be an athlete, an amateur chef, a gardener, a stamp collector - whatever floats your boat! Your self-worth is not determined by how well you play Beethoven. There are so many other facets to you - really important traits that matter to you and the world just as much, if not more, than your ability to play your instrument.


If you miss a note in your recital, or you have a giant memory slip like me, it’s definitely a bummer. Allow yourself to be disappointed for a bit, but remember it’s just one performance of (hopefully!) a lifetime of them. You didn’t destroy the world when you forgot a passage of Bach. Most likely, very few people, if anyone, will even remember your mistake. Instead, they might remember the highlights of your performance, but they’re probably more likely to remember that fun trip you took or the time you helped them move or talked them through a tough time. Those are the important things.


Second, on a more practical note, make sure to make the most of every “practice” performance you get. I hated playing in studio class for so long until I realized that my degree was in performance, and this was the best way to practice performing. Utilize all of those studio and masterclass performances to your advantage. It’s tempting to try to be perfect in those as well, but remember that this is your safe space to try new things, listen to others’ critiques, and learn from the experience to help prepare you for the Big Performance later. Maybe even outside of studio you can gather a couple of friends to listen to you from time to time. One of my friends in undergrad would frequently barge into my practice room and demand I play for him! Best performance practice ever!


On the flip side, remember when you are giving criticism to someone else that your comments remain supportive and constructive. It’s likely whoever is performing is experiencing similar things that you do - berating themselves for things they missed, wishing parts of their performance had gone differently, and pressuring themselves to have the “perfect” performance in this situation as well. They probably would not appreciate unkind or overly critical words, just as you wouldn’t.


Finally, we have to remember we’re only human. I can guarantee that those artists whose performances and recordings you hear and think are perfect are also self-critical. Musicians by nature tend to be pretty self-critical, I find - it’s one of our qualities that drives us to be better. It’s live performance - things happen that you can never predict or account for, because that’s how the universe works. We practice to prepare ourselves as much as possible for those unpredictable factors, but there’s always going to be something because we’re humans and we make mistakes.


But isn’t that the beauty of art and music? The humanity is what makes this field so special. No one wants to hear a pristine performance of something. It’s the musical equivalent to a hospital - sterile, scrubbed clean, devoid of any emotion. People want to be drawn in and connected to the music. They want to hear feeling and humanness, to relate to the characters and emotions you are trying to convey.


 

Before your next performance, try to remind yourself of this. Remember that you are human, and while that may mean your performance might not be perfect, it also means that it can be really beautiful and meaningful to somebody. Try to pick repertoire you genuinely love, if you can, so that you can appreciate your craft the way you were meant to, before you got bogged down by all the practical realities of a career in music. Those realities won’t go away, but your performance can be a space out of time to forget all of those things and just enjoy yourself. Your audience will appreciate your vulnerability and listen to what you have to say, and I guarantee that will be even more fulfilling than a “perfect” performance.


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