I do not believe striving for perfection is a trap, or something negative in any way. It is fully embedded and encouraged in our beliefs and in our craft. “Be ye therefore perfect…” (Matthew 5:48) is an admonition of Christ. Elder Holland helped us contextualize and contemporize that in his conference address “Be Ye Therefore Perfect—Eventually” (October 2017). This is the perfect advice for musicians at every level. But it takes time.
Pablo Casals, the great cellist, was asked by someone who found out he was still practicing several hours a day well into his 80’s, “Why are you still practicing? Surely after a lifetime of practicing and performing you already know all you need to know.” Casals answered, “Because I’m seeing some real progress.” That is how we should measure our daily, weekly, and semester-long success.
Every musician can set a daily goal to be just a little better—by a measurable and achievable amount. Don’t worry so much about what others are doing, or what you thought you should be doing by now. Rather, just nibble off that daily bite of achievable better-ness. Joseph Smith said he felt like a rough stone rolling, that little by little as he rolled along, the protruding pieces that were out of round were getting smoothed off and polished so that he was becoming a round, smooth ball. That perfectly describes how musicians should face their daily practice.
I strongly urge you all to read Angela Duckworth’s book Grit, and Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath. These will help you understand high-level success in a better way. But if you give up on pursuing excellence you will never achieve what you should or could, not just in music, but in life. No one ever became all they dream of by settling for whatever happens. Never settle, but for heaven’s sake, cut yourself some slack, and give yourself time, maybe even like Casals into your 80’s, to get there. -Kory Katseanas
Ugh, that’s so hard. Well, if I can, I try to laugh about it. I try to remember that I have another day and more performances. I remember that it’s ok to fail. In fact, failing is usually what helps me grow and learn the most. I also try to be kind to myself. -Jason Bergman
I’m going to speak to the unsatisfying result. I’ve had really great performances but they didn’t fill me like some others have. I actually had a judge at a festival come up to me and say, “Congratulations. You figured out the formula to get Superiors at festival. Next time you come I challenge you to go beyond that and change lives.” It hurt, but it was so true. I had started to focus on judges and winning and the performances were high quality, but not moving. The next year, we picked music that focused on important topics and were outside of our comfort zone. The feeling in the room was electric. None of us even cared about scores because everything had changed. If you find your work and performance is not filling you the same way it used to, it might be time to analyze the outcomes and motives you're focused on. It might be time to return to why you are doing what you are doing. I want my music to change lives! -Erin Bailey
There’s a word in Italian, “avvicinandoci,” which basically means coming closer and closer. I liked to use this word with our choirs. Would we ever have a perfect rehearsal or performance? Probably not. But could we strive to get closer and closer and be happy with that effort? Definitely! I think the success is that you are striving for excellence. We don’t have to arrive at the distant goal of perfection to be happy with our work today. D&C 58:27 says, Men should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness. To me that sounds like balancing not being perfect with trying every day to do good, to be a friend, to ask for Heavenly Father’s help to do His will and be an instrument in His hands. I think you should be happy that you have a heart that loves to reach high. If you know you’re reaching too high, you know you’re going to fail, and that’s discouraging. Know where you want to be in the end and choose one thing this week that’s achievable that you can do. I also would like to suggest not measuring your success by outcomes, but by effort. “Did you play this piece perfectly at your lesson?” Could be traded for “Did I carve out time every day to improve my pieces and technique to show my teacher at my lesson?” This is a better way to gauge your success. Strive to be your best rather than perfect. -Erin Bailey
I find myself losing motivation if I’m not trying to be perfect, but I get heartbroken if I reach too high and fail. How do you balance not being perfect and yet striving for perfection?
I have completely let go of perfection. It doesn’t exist. It’s an oasis. It’s Santa Claus. It’s the tooth fairy. It doesn’t lead to joy, happiness, or even good performances. I do not seek any balance with it because it’s not healthy for me. Of course, I want to improve and get better. I work really hard to do so. I have clear goals I’m still working for. However, I never see any of them as a destination, especially not a perfect one. There’s not a single perfect thing out there, so stop chasing it. I don’t mean to be harsh, but I think if you can look at improvement as a healthy and positive way to live, you will experience less anxiety and disappointment associated with trying to be perfect. -Jason Bergman
This has been hard for me as I enter BYU’s academic world for the first time. Teaching all new classes is humbling as I find there is still so much I don’t know. Imposter syndrome is real and not just for students! 🙂 I have to remember that I will never know everything about everything. I probably will never know everything about even one thing! I know though that I was chosen to do a job here and I am going to try to do my best. Same for you. Your skills and knowledge were of such a high level that you auditioned and were accepted into this challenging music program. Pat yourself on the back every once in a while and then look ahead and get to work. You are not a finished product. I sure hope I’m not a finished product. We have eternities of learning and growing to do. Be happy with how far you’ve come and recognize that you are at the very beginning of the path of learning and growing you get to journey on for the rest of your life. Additionally, I find that I can feel more satisfied with myself if I choose one area that I’m striving to improve in for this week, rather than looking around hopelessly trying to improve in ALL of the areas. In short, you have come so far in your life that you’ve finally arrived at the beginning. Be patient and joyous in the process! -Erin Bailey
Perspective helps with this. First of all, there is no specific time when you’re “supposed” to arrive, to be there. Instead of focusing on a destination, focus on the present. Be involved with there you are right now, know it’s good enough, and then have the patience to grow into what you want to become.
The image of a plant or tree is helpful. When you plant a tree, it’s always growing but it takes years to be fully mature and to provide shelter or shade. Just because it’s not there yet doesn’t mean it’s worthless. It still houses birds and animals, provides fruit, and protection while it’s young. Perspective helps you to see the now and the future and realize it’s ok to be in the middle. -Jason Bergman
I feel inadequate every day. When I was younger, I thought I would grow out of those feelings when I had a stable job, when I had certain skills, etc. Nope, it's never gone away. I suppose I don't really know how I deal with it. I talk about it with people I love, pretty frequently, even these days. Finding joy in what I *am* capable of, and finding joy in others' successes, helps me. Turning to the Lord when I am in need of a boost has always helped me feel that I am loved, even if I have fallen short. -Neil Thornock
I recently played a short recital for a small, local audience. I was performing a few pieces I'd played frequently before and another piece I was performing for the first time. After the performance I found myself re-hashing how everything went. I was very dissatisfied with my performance of the new piece. I found myself going over the specific places that didn't go so well. Although assessing performances is a useful practice, I found myself experiencing some negativity and frustration.
While I was in this negative frame of mind, the host of the recital called me and thanked me for the recital. And told me that one of the audience members (someone I didn't know) had just lost her husband - the funeral had been just a few weeks earlier. This grieving audience member told the host that the new piece I had played felt like "heaven" to her and helped her feel peace.
It was a reminder that my performances aren't about "me." Music is a language of communication and has the power to touch peoples' hearts, and heal peoples' hearts - EVEN through a performance that needs work. I still practiced over those spots that needed work, but the negativity I had felt completely went away when I remembered why I was doing it. I felt gratitude for the beauty music has brought into my life - even when our individual performances still need some work. The next time I performed that same new piece I found myself imagining an audience member who might be hurting and needing to hear/experience something beautiful through the music. -Stephen Beus
Try to bring your music into a healthy perspective so that performing is actually part of your mental health in a positive way. Have something on your stand that always is for you, something that makes you happy. For me, sometimes that’s dabbling with Mariachi, or natural trumpet, or jazz improv - these are all things I’m not really good at, but they’re just fun.
Try to be self aware of when things are out of balance. If it’s not healthy, talk to a trusted friend or teacher. Talk to a therapist. There is help out there to enable us to get things back on track. Don’t disregard your health out of some imagined suffering you think you need to do. -Jason Bergman
This is super hard, especially in our culture. I constantly tell myself that perfection is not the goal. In fact, I try to eliminate that awful word and concept from my vocabulary. And, if I’m honest, I don’t even consider it a part of the gospel. It’s so destructive. A few things help me… First, I try to remember why I chose to do music. Do you remember why you chose music? For me, I love the thrill of performing and of collaborating with others. Focusing on that helps me to stop focusing on myself. Second, I also work daily to reaffirm that I’m good enough as I am right now. Not in a way that I am content, but in a way that says I know I’m growing and have room to grow, but there’s not a destination. I’m constantly growing and becoming. I’m going to enjoy the journey right now in this moment. And finally, move away from perfection entirely. Throw that concept out because it’s so damaging and unhelpful. - Jason Bergman