Dealing with perfectionism in Suzuki students

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Last night, my daughter was helping me sweep the driveway. Storms and high winds had left lots of debris in the driveway and she came out to help me clean up. With only a few minutes to spare before bedtime, I told her that we should take care of part of the job and leave the rest until tomorrow. Her response?

“No, it has to be perfect.”

If the driveway has to be perfect, imagine what a violin piece has to be?

“No, it has to be perfect.” of course is the mantra of every perfectionist everywhere. Ask me how I know…

Perfectionists can be incredibly endearing because they are so responsible. Give them a task and they’ll do it to, well, perfection. They throw themselves into the task at hand with every bit of energy they can muster. But perfection is an impossible and unsustainable standard. Eventually something must give under the weight of all that perfection. By the time most of us reach adulthood, we learn to moderate our perfectionist tendencies somewhat. The impossibly unsatisfiable mutually exclusive constraints of life prevent us from holding ourselves to the universal standard of perfectionism. However, along the way, many succumb to anxiety, low self-regard, and procrastination as a way of dealing with the need to be perfect. Since parents shape their children’s way of being in the world to such a great extent, we can help avoid perfectionism in our children or at least help them moderate their tendencies.

Why is perfectionism detrimental to musicians?

Musical performance is an inherently subjective and interpretive act. On that level, perfection is unattainable simply because no standard exists. Certain facts about stylistic interpretation of the composer’s intent are simply not known. But most young musicians are more concerned about the technical aspects of performance they develop in the practice room. There, practice is at first an exercise in learning the notes. Later it is an exercise in achieving a high level of consistency with the performance. Most perfectionism strikes here. As pieces grow longer and more complex, errors are statistically more likely. At the same time, opportunities that rely on auditions raise the stakes for performance errors.

All musicians have some performance anxiety while some have more than others. One of the most virulent forms of performance anxiety, though, comes from mistake-avoidance because it is such a tension-inducing condition. Perfectionism can also lead to unhealthy practice habits such as over-practicing and practicing repetitions beyond the point of fatigue, risk injury in the process. Ultimately, perfectionism can be associated with low self-esteem, procrastination, anxiety, and self-harm.

How do I know if I might have a perfectionist for a child?

Perfectionists aren’t too hard to recognize. Child counselor and teacher, Leah Davies has written about perfectionism in children has outlined some of the comment features of perfectionists:

  • They are unusually self-conscious and easily embarrassed*.
  • They are very sensitive to criticism and react negatively to feedback.
  • They may tend to procrastinate, dawdle, or avoid doing tasks.
  • They often have low self-confidence and may be socially inhibited.

And of course, they set high standards for themselves and are critical of others who don’t meet them.

How can parents avoid teaching their children perfectionist traits?

Some of the elements of perfectionism are genetically-inherited. A child’s tendency toward positive or negative emotions and their anxiety levels are inherited to a great extent from her parents. Sorry, you can’t choose those…
But many of a child’s personality characteristics are learned. Even those that are innate can be modulated up or down by the parent’s interactions with their children.

Some ways of interacting with children that can reduce perfectionist tendencies:

  1. Avoid modeling perfectionism

    Since children often learn that perfect is the only acceptable standard from parents who demand the same from themselves, we can be better role models by replacing the standard of “perfect” with “perfectly acceptable.” The standard we should be interested in is the standard of working toward excellence. It isn’t a perfect outcome we should be interested in. Rather it’s the honest effort at achieving excellence. Did you work hard and give it your perfectly human effort? Then you did a perfectly acceptable job!

  2. Make praise specific and low-key

    The risk of over-praising kids is that they begin to associate a specific action with a global state of being. For example, if the child plays a passage and the parents says: “Oh, you’re awesome!” then the child connects playing with a trait that they must possess. It’s better to say: “I really liked how you remembered the bowing pattern that time.” Low-key and specific.

  3. Avoid comparisons with other children

    By comparing rates of progress, kids sense that parental affection is tied to progress and they will do everything they can to hold onto that. Since the rate of progress is related to so many variables outside of their control, this sets up an impossible standard to meet. Most parents are circumspect about making direct comparisons. But we all succumb to more subtle versions of it by talking about who is in which book and who’s on what piece.

  4. Embrace and teach a growth mindset

    In some ways a growth mindset is the perfect a really good antidote to perfectionism. (See what I did there?) The growth mindset refers to an orientation toward competence as growth rather than fixed, innate ability. By emphasizing this orientation and the idea that growth and mistakes go hand-in-hand, parents can diffuse some perfectionist tendencies.

  5. Point out the cognitive dissonances of their faulty logic

    Perfectionists mentally raise their own tightropes to very high levels. Even when the stakes aren’t very high, they raise them. With perfectionist performance anxiety, we can ask them questions that point out the discrepancy between their fears and the actual outcome. Imagine this conversation between a parent and a child:

    (Before a recital)

    Parent: “I see that you’re anxious about you’re recital. What’s the worst thing that could happen?”
    Child: “They would laugh at me.”
    Parent: “I’ve never seen audience members laugh at performers. How likely do you think that is?”
    Child: “Very”

    (After the recital)

    Parent: “How was it?”
    Child: “It was OK but I forgot to repeat that one section.”
    Parent: “So you made a little mistake. I bet almost no one noticed. Did they laugh at you?”
    Child: “No.”
    Parent: “Remember you thought it was very likely that they would laugh if you made a mistake? Sometimes we think bad things will happen and they almost never do.”

    This simple before/after interaction is a form of cognitive-behavioral therapy that plants the seeds of how children (and adults) can begin to test their assumptions about feared outcomes.

  6. Love and respect should be unconditional

    What happens in the practice room stays in the practice room. Imagine a firewall between the practice room and the rest of the house. If things don’t go well in practice, in a lesson, or a performance, let it go. If conflict arises in practice, let it stay there. Withdrawing love and respect on account of something that happens with their playing is a recipe for perfectionism and other neuroses.

  7. Teach kids step-by-step problem solving and goal-setting skills

    Perfectionists expect immediate results. Playing a musical instrument doesn’t work that way. Starting out, the teacher and parent work on bite-sized chunks to work on. Later, children learn to do that themselves. The more visible we make that process, the more control they feel and the more success they will have in practice. By working on smaller parts of a piece and setting progressive goals, they’ll learn that mistakes and progress are best friends.

  8. Teach children to use positive self-talk and ways of coping with negative self-assessment

    The negative emotions that accompany perfectionism can be overwhelming. The running monologue in our heads can be tamed and filtered by pushing it in a positive direction. Children can be taught to identify negative self-talk and put it into the mental wastebasket. We can also model non-judgmental speech as a way of helping children avoid negative self-talk. We can catch ourselves using judgmental language in many situations and restate it in a neutral way.

  9. Involve children in a range of activities, not only music.

    The most resilient people don’t define themselves solely by success in a narrow discipline. They involve themselves in a variety of interests and outlets so that if something is not going well in one area, they have others to draw on. The purpose isn’t to give kids a host of other pursuits at which they can be perfect. And they should be overwhelmed by endless shuttling between activities. The purpose is to give them a more well-rounded range of abilities and deeper “well” from which to draw support and confidence.

There is a fine line between working toward excellence vs pushing toward perfectionism. But recognizing perfectionist traits early can allow parents to shape their language and interactions with children in ways that tone-down these tendencies. Of what value is any of this if children are so driven or paralyzed by the pursuit of perfection that they can’t enjoy it. The question they should be asking isn’t “Did I play it perfectly?” It should be “Did I say something important? Was I true to the music?”

And yes, the driveway still isn’t perfect.

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