Perfection is the Enemy of Progress! (Classical Music Edition)

Updated: Nov 26, 2020

For many years, I was blinded by the end goal in music: the perfect performance.


The end justifies the means.


I originally had half of the first sentence above in quotation marks because of how ridiculous it all sounds to me now... Let me take you back, back to 2008...


My practicing was primarily motivated by fear: fear of not “making it,” fear of embarrassing myself, and even the fear that I had made a mistake choosing music as my major. I spent hours over the reed desk, trying to craft perfect reeds for performances, while practicing and sometimes even rehearsing on reject reeds.


For me, classical music was all about magic. (Not like Harry Potter; more like Penn & Teller.) The performer crafts the illusion of effortlessness and ease while traversing through unimaginably difficult passages.


I held the philosophy that you should woodshed alone in the practice room where no one can hear you fail, and after a while, you will emerge victorious: nailing the recital, winning the audition, and garnering the first prize in any competition.



What changed?


There are a few things that helped me move out of this point of view and brought me to where I am today.


These days, I am completely comfortable putting my iPhone on my music stand, and livestreaming myself practicing across Instagram. I’m happy to be working on something that’s not completely finished or ready or polished and put it out there for people to hear. It brings me joy to share my process with people.


Learning happens in the practice room, and we all have a lot to gain when we’re learning together, rather than separately.


Mindset!


The first thing that really helped me is reading Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset.* It’s life-changing. If you haven’t read it, go order a copy today.


Carol Dweck is a psychologist at Stanford and is known for her research defining the growth and fixed mindsets. Many people in the fixed mindset believe that certain attributes are innate: talent, skills, intelligence, potential, etc. I believed this myself. My mindset had led me to internalize that I might just have enough talent to succeed in music, but not an ounce more. I worked super hard because I felt that I didn’t have any time to spare. If I didn’t practice as much as I could—to the point of burn out—I was completely wasting my time and my life.


Sadly, many people in my field still feel this way. I want to tell the world that it’s wrong. Scientific studies have proven that talent, or the ability to pick something up quickly, has absolutely no effect on how successful an individual is in the long run.


First rehearsal anxiety.


The next part came after finishing school at Yale and beginning to freelance as a musician. I had shifted to a growth mindset in so many things already:


  • It helped me become a better communicator with my boyfriend (now husband!).

  • I started taking running seriously and ran my first half marathon after years of many reservations about not being good enough.

  • I stopped being afraid of orchestral auditions and started learning from each audition.


Our first half-marathon in 2016!

However, I still had some fixed mindset hangups in my career. One in particular was the anxiety I felt about rehearsals, especially first rehearsals. I cared so much and I wanted everything to be perfect so that I could impress my colleagues and get hired back.


PSA: Playing to try to impress colleagues is a recipe for turning into a blob of stress.


The extra anxiety and pressure I was putting on myself obviously didn’t help me play better.


I worked with a performance psychologist that helped me shift my focus from performance to process. I devoted myself to progress and looking at the big picture. I still wanted to do well in a performance, rehearsal, or audition, but one day or one week didn’t define me anymore. I can’t stress enough how liberating that feels. I wish I had been able to internalize that a little bit sooner.


Without the added stress, I was able to connect to the sheer joy that brought me to pursue music in the first place, perform better, and enjoy the moment-to-moment of rehearsals.


Inviting people into my process


I’m tying this back to social media, because that’s where I’m performing these days. I want to project my message to my audience which is filled with keen high school and undergrad musicians. Process is where art thrives. Worrying excessively about perfection or the judgement of others is most certainly where art goes to die.


I get messages and comments from oboists that tell me I’m inspiring them to practice on a weekly basis. That’s so important to me because I’m now part of a community that values what we can learn from one another.


Social media has been a gift and I certainly get as much out of the experience as I put into it: when someone tells me a meme I created I made their day, when someone sends me a video of their first attempts at vibrato after watching a tutorial I made, when someone tells me that they are touched that I’m out and proud as a classical musician because when they grow up they won’t have to hide who they are either.


These are special moments, and I cherish the connections that I’ve fostered during this time.


I’ve weirdly found a lot of direction in my life due to the things I’m doing now and I think it stems from these two things:

  1. Having a growth mindset and not feeling like I have to be perfect right away at anything.

  2. Focusing on the process and sharing my process with the world.


I would love to encourage you to think about your mindset and what kind of change you can make in your life when you aren’t living in the shadow of fear or doubt!


PS: please consider joining my email list. I am the last person I ever thought would have an email list, since I am a chronic unsubscriber! I despise receiving useless emails so I promise I won’t send you anything that I don’t think is valuable information about weathering the next year or two as a classical musician with regards to social media.





*Disclosure: I only recommend products I love and all opinions expressed here are my own. This post may contain affiliate links through which I may earn a small commission at no additional cost to you.


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