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Perfection or excellence?

I have just worked with a musician, a flautist, who struggles with what so many musicians struggle with: a bullying Inner Critic who tells her she’s never good enough and that her playing must be perfect. Teachers have told her she played too loud, that she had no idea of a certain musical style and that her playing wasn’t musical – unhelpful feedback at best, cruel at worst. The criticisms hurt and fed into her own belief about herself and unsurprisingly, her playing was tense and armoured. She didn’t feel safe enough to be free and expressive.

We looked at how to change the Inner Critic (judgmental and negatively emotional) into the Objective Observer (non-judgmental and non-emotional), critically important for a musician, although it’s a concept that needs time to be embedded. We talked about the harshness of demanding perfection and the impact that has on a musician, compared to what happens when you allow mistakes to happen and simply learn from them.

Inner Critic - Performance Anxiety

I agree wholeheartedly with playing music to the highest of standards. What is important to me is how those standards are reached. Criticism and bullying in their various guises have always been an accepted form of achieving high standards and these can be so damaging to a musician and their playing.

I’ve come to realize that musicians often see perfection as the same as excellence, and that the end justifies the means. I see them as two different things: one is damaging and the other much healthier:

Perfection is impossible; excellence is always possible.

Perfection is working towards an ideal that can never be reached. It is unattainable. It is driving yourself towards that goal and never being satisfied; excellence works by being observing what needs to be improved and doing that objectively. It doesn’t allow negative emotional involvement.

Perfection is ‘unforgiving’. Mistakes are bad. Excellence recognizes that you can make mistakes to achieve the high standards you are aiming for.

Perfection demands perfection at any cost. Excellence acknowledges you can never meet ideals of perfection whatever they might be, and is comfortable with that.

Perfection demands constant striving. It doesn’t matter if you don’t feel good. You can never let yourself off the hook. Excellence accepts that you are fallible. It is OK to have down days when you don’t feel at your best and you aren’t playing at your best. It knows that being fallible is essential for your emotional well-being and your playing.

Perfection doesn’t care what you do or what you feel as long as you produce a ‘perfect’ result. Excellence recognizes that playing at your best needs openness, receptivity, curiosity, fascination and a willingness to get it wrong, in order to find the best way to do it.

Perfection uses bullying or even cruelty to get results. Excellence realizes that kindness is essential to reach high standards. Kindness allows space, openness and the freedom to truly express yourself.

Extract from: Music from the Inside Out (available on Amazon)


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