Picky without being perfect

I’ve been reading and thinking a lot about perfectionism lately because I think it’s a trap that ViolinGirl could easily fall into. I have that tendency too.

Perfectionism: the refusal to accept any standard short of perfection.

Picking up on cues from her teacher, we’ve started to become pickier about certain parts of practice. If ViolinGirl plays certain notes in a passage out of tune; I’ll wait for a moment to point it out to her, have her replay the passage more slowly, and move on. The same is true for rhythmic inconsistencies. I’ll point out where she’s rushing. My goal isn’t for her to feel she has to play the passages perfectly. My goal is for her to begin to notice these elements of the music so she has the basic tools for self-monitoring.

Until know, our listening practice has sufficed to have her self-regulate her rhythm and pitch. Of all the elements of the Suzuki method of talent education, this is the most remarkable. If people only knew how powerful it is… But as she’s playing more from the page, sometimes music she’s never heard, the listening practice doesn’t always help. I’ve also noticed that as she becomes more confident in her playing, she doesn’t always slow down to hear the details. Pianist Jeremy Denk wrote: “Ninety per cent of a teacher’s job is directing students to read what’s plainly on the page.”[1] Since the practice parent’s job is to be a stand-in for the teacher, the same must also be true of him.

So how picky should we be as practice parents? By being picky are we unwittingly training them to be little perfectionists? I believe that it comes down to two factors for practice parents: communication and focus on outcomes.

Communication

The work of a practice parent is full of nuance. When I put piece of advice “out there”, I’m never quite sure what the reaction will be. But I’m keenly looking at her to notice her facial expression, her tone of voice and body language. If she starts to whine and wiggle, I might push one more repetition, but not much more. Perhaps I could be accused of “going easy” on her. I see it as skillfully avoiding resistance. Once we’re not pulling on the same side any longer, it’s not productive. I believe that we lay the groundwork for pickiness-level standards vs. perfectionistic standards in the way we communicate as practice parents. If we are constantly stern and demanding about mistakes, it sets negative, avoidant emotions into play. There’s always tomorrow.

Outcomes

I agree with Dr. Noa Kageyama, violinist, Julliard alumnus, and performance psychologist who writes on The Bulletproof Musician about the roots of perfectionism.[2] He relates perfectionism to a single-minded focus on a technically-perfect performance. Instead of focusing only on the technical aspects, musicians should decide what it is they wish to communicate and make that their goal. Technical accuracy is only one of many components of such a holistic performance that have to be considered. He notes that: “The more you focus on technical perfection, the more nervous you will tend to be. Why? Because you don’t have much else going for you – and you know that the likelihood of a technically perfect performance is close to zero. There is a part of you that knows you are likely to fail from both a technical perspective and a “move the audience to tears” perspective. No wonder you’re nervous – you’re setting yourself up to fail.” The perfectionist mindset says: “I must play this passage perfectly or the performance will be horrible.” The pickiness mindset says: “I would like to play this passage correctly because I don’t want it to get in the way of what I’m trying to communicate.” I believe that if we shape our language to correspond to the pickiness mindset, we can avoid pushing kids toward perfectionism.

Other ideas?


  1. Denk, Jeremy. “Every Good Boy Does Fine.” The New Yorker. 8 Apr. 2013. Web. 24 May 2015. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/04/08/every-good-boy-does-fine.

  2. Noa, Kageyama. “Don’t read this if you are a perfectionist.” The Bulletproof Musician. Publication date unknown. Web. 24 May 2015. http://www.bulletproofmusician.com/dont-read-this-if-you-are-a-perfectionist/.