When Perfection Paralyzes

I’ve worked with musicians of various stripes in their endeavors to prepare artistically for a performance. As an artistic coach and conductor I have found there are usually three types of preparation styles that musicians use to develop their performance concepts of a work.

The first type of player looks to others for answers to How does the piece go? What is the right way to play this piece? The outside source is usually an esteemed teacher whose words are treated as absolute and right. This performer seeks to perpetuate at the best of their ability, the way that was passed down to them in a sort of pedigree approach.

This style, then, is pre-occupied with producing sounds in close replica of an external model. The player competes internally with their own skills to come closer to the teacher’s example. This model is typical for young players and provides a good launch site for developing a sense of musicianship.

However, a player stuck in this mode, unable or unwilling to develop personal music maturity, will often come to a coaching session seeking confirmation that their teacher/ideal model continues to be right. They are usually unwilling to absorb new possibilities and can even become hostile if their idol’s methods are questioned. If a musician continues in the servitude of this external ideal, the romance may eventually wear off. Unfortunately without the skills to develop personal musicianship, the player often becomes unfulfilled and disgruntled.

(Consider this instance from a rehearsal of the Dvorak cello concerto. When I asked for confirmation that the soloist did indeed want to move aggressively ahead at the point in the score where Dvorak writes dolce. The surprising reply was, “Hmm, I’m not sure, I need to listen to X’s recording again.” This, from a player who had just graduated from a top school with a doctorate degree in music performance! I’m tempted to suggest that the longer one remains in school the more committed the player becomes to this ‘pedigree’ style of musicianship. It does bring success in that environment!)

The second type of player wrestles with a piece, looking for answers to artistic questions from within.
The ‘right way’ of performing will be one that is genuine and true to the self and the music. They see their role as a creative artist, rather than a reproducer. Their competitive drive is towards developing musical depth. These types of musicians are very pro-active and are usually artistically satisfied. This player also knows that no one else is exactly like them; as a unique artist they feel no rivalry towards other players.

(This musician is an absolute pleasure to coach as everything becomes grist for their artistic mill.
Note that this musician will find working under mediocre conductors - who keep them on a tight leash - justifiably torturous!)

The third type seeks to execute a ‘right way’ of performance which is neither based on what another person offers as a roadmap , nor what is discovered or created from within. This musician strives to play a piece perfectly. Perfection - as defined by some vague cosmic, super-human ideal.

This third style incorporates one striking aspect. Whereas both the ‘do as the teacher says’ reproducer and the ‘I will dig deep and discover’ creator are following the respective routes out of a desire to communicate and connect with a listener, the perfectionist’s style is concerned solely with their own achievements. The listener remains outside the artistic equation as the artistic goal is to prove one’s ability to attain perfection to oneself.

I see a familiar analogy of this mindset in the Olympic athlete whose goal of acing a perfect ten or nailing a triple jump fulfills the performer’s own desire; the audience is only an observer or witness. Performance art, however, includes the audience in the goal. Actors, for example, judge their ‘rightness’ or the value of a performance on Did I get them? Did I connect to the audience? Did I move them? The value received by the audience is a priority. A perfectly spoken, paced, and acted scene has no meaning and no value if nobody ‘got it.’

To perform on stage in front of listeners and present art in a manner of an Olympic athlete is stingy. One can admire a player’s intense drive to continually improve, but when the listener is removed from the equation, this behavior become self-gratifying and conceited. For a musician who touts having high standards and a relentless - even heroic - drive for being perfect, it can be a crushing blow to realize how perfection can cripple one’s art.

When a player is stuck in this mode, perfection paralyzes artistic development. Only note-production remains. Such players tend to approach a piece as an engineer would, seeking the one correct way, exacting the notated data, calculating the required technique, refining the logistics; counting, measuring, redesigning.

So how do you coach a perfectionist? I try to re-frame the drive for perfection to a drive for excellence; artistic, communicative excellence. When perfection paralyzes, the artist becomes pre-occupied with inner-dialogues related to technique, the bits of music which are measurable, countable, and tangible to the ear. So my comments direct the player to consider the listener’s version of the event, something much more difficult to grasp. I try to redirect their concern of “Was it perfect?” to include the audience’s needs and help players develop the skills to understand “Did it work?” This may require a frank discussion about music-making and the role of the performer. (Most perfection-driven players will resist re-direction because it goes against their way of approaching music – and, I suspect, way of life, too. In such cases, I respect their human-spirit and offer to be a neutral ‘third ear’ in their endeavors.)

When the drive for perfection dominates a performer’s mind set, music loses heart, poetry, and depth. Surprisingly, if not tragically, I have worked with musicians who are unable to grasp the poetic, metaphoric side of music. Notes are just notes. They tend to be well-programmed, extremely sensitive and finessed machines with acute ears, but lack a sensibility as to how sounds might relate to qualities other than what is scored on the paper. They can realize the composer’s blue print with precision and ease, yet the concept of conveying meaning is foreign. Perfection paralyzes the soul and chills the muse.

(A player with this type of artistic preparation usually finds a niche in modern repertoire where a correct performance tends to require a literal reproduction of the notated instructions. The more technical challenges a piece offers, the more satisfying the preparation process and final performance.)

What causes some players to pursue perfection rather than artful performance remains unclear to me. I’m hardly qualified to speculate, either. However, what is most concerning is the player’s detachment from their audience. Musicianship differs from a sport that awards medals we take home around our neck. Rather the artist sets out to win the sort of medals which every audience member takes home and carries with them forever.