A friend recently told me about a master class he’d observed at a world-class chamber music festival. The young pianist in the class played a stylish and virtuosic showpiece with dazzling technical mastery. Then, something strange happened. As the coach leading the class began to work with the pianist, it became clear that while she played the piece with great panache and flawless technical command, she couldn’t work with any of the teacher’s ideas about shaping the music differently, and the energy in the room dissipated as he found himself without much to say.
At the end of the festival the pianist played the piece again, in concert, exactly the same way she had in the master class, and her electrifying performance was punctuated by the audience’s gasps at her technical brilliance. After the concert, my friend saw the pianist sobbing. When I asked him if he thought she was crying because she wasn’t happy with her performance, he said, “Maybe she was crying because not being able to change anything made her realize that she had no living connection to what she was doing. And without that, there was no satisfaction to be found in performing.”
His interpretation of what happened made sense to me. But when I told another friend the same story, she saw it differently. Her guess was that the pianist cried because she was overwhelmed to receive so much appreciation from her audience.
I had no idea how to reconcile these two interpretations of the story. But then I realized that the point was not to determine exactly how the pianist felt or why, but that these two views represent contrasting sides of the same conundrum we face as musicians: We want so much to perform and connect with our audiences and to do justice to the music, but we often feel pressured by a desire to be perfect. We may even get depressed if we fail to live up to that ideal. Yet if we can really let go onstage and fully receive the audience’s appreciation of our performance—in spite of our imperfections—it nourishes our heart enormously.
I also realized that when I thought that this pianist was upset because she felt disconnected in performance, I was actually projecting my own disconnection from the music and from my audience onto her. I’d long been so fixated on excluding my flaws from my playing and performing that despite my desire to move my audience, I’d built a wall around myself. Even when an audience did applaud warmly, I couldn’t open my heart to accept their appreciation. So when I heard the second friend’s interpretation of the story—that the pianist cried because the audience’s appreciation meant so much to her—I saw what I longed for even more than perfection: to fully exchange heart energy with the audience instead of being walled off from them by fear and shame.
The Trap of Perfectionism
I thought back to my conversation with the first friend. He and I were talking about how hard it can be to be spontaneous in performance because we often spend so much time formulating a specific idea of how the music should sound. He said that he tries to counteract this habit by remembering that each time he performs, he is actually creating the sound that he is hearing on the spot, and that this helps him immerse himself in the vibrancy and “now-ness” of the music, instead of getting caught in comparing his performance to the ideal he has in his head.
I was envious of his experience of openness. I realized that most of my experiences had been quite the opposite—of closing down, contraction, and narrow possibility. And as I reflected, I saw that the primary source of constriction I had so often encountered while performing went beyond the formal demands of the music, or a sane commitment to mastery, or even physical tension. Underneath all that was my orientation toward re-creating the “perfect” version of the piece every time I played it—of reproducing a pre-formed concept rather than staying open to the possibilities inherent in live performance.
Closing my eyes and thinking about my habitual perfection-seeking brought to mind the image of building a ship in a bottle, of squeezing your fingers through the narrow neck, tweezers outstretched, to perch the delicate sails on their masts, just so. While the precise form of the replica inside is exquisite, the neck of that bottle isn’t big enough for a human being to fit through. Talking to my friend at first brought up many memories of feeling hemmed in by the fear associated with this perfectionistic approach. The sensations were vivid—muscular tension, tunnel vision, compressed musical gestures and narrow dynamic range. I realized I’d literally been trying to make myself small, small enough to fit through the neck of that bottle and come out perfect on the other side.
Freedom and Vulnerability
I tried recalling my exceptionally joyful or confident performances and recognized that what I’d felt was freedom—to move and use my body, to express my musical ideas, and most of all, to be myself without desperately trying to hide my flaws. When I felt courageous about being on the spot, it was because shifting my focus to the immediate sensory experience of creating sound not only gave the music space to be born anew, but also allowed me to let go of judging my performance or myself.
While I was writing this article I was in the process of preparing for a solo recital, which was in the forefront of my mind. Through meditation, I did some quiet inquiry into my deepest aspiration for the performance, and I found that what I wanted most was to be able to give and receive freely, to feel I had nothing to hide, that no part of myself was unworthy of being touched by the audience’s gratitude. As I inquired further, I realized that this free exchange of feeling required me to be completely vulnerable—to not armor myself or hold anything back out of fear or shame.
The trouble is, being vulnerable enough to let go of our ideas about how we should be or how the piece should go, feeling as though we’re right there with the sound as we’re creating it, isn’t often easy or comfortable. In fact, it can be terrifying. Suddenly we’re conscious of all of the open space around us, within us, and even within the music itself. We’re aware that anything could happen, and it might not make us look good. In each moment we’re deciding what to do next and are completely present for the whatever result we create, instead of just pressing “play” on the recording in our minds and following along.
The upcoming recital loomed in my mind. Did I have the courage to let go of my habitual desire to be perfect and to allow myself to be genuine, which was my true aspiration?
Saying Yes to Everything
When the day of the recital arrived, I embraced it as another opportunity to see how much I could let go, trust myself, and be kind to myself no matter the result. As I prepared during the hours leading up to the performance, I employed a practice from Tara Brach’s incredible book Radical Acceptance: I practiced saying “yes” to everything I experienced—sensations, emotions, thoughts–no matter if I found them pleasant or unpleasant. This means that when I said “yes” to unpleasant thoughts, such as “I’m going to fail; I always fail,” I simply allowed those thoughts to be in my head without either believing them or trying to make them go away, and they then became less threatening. Negative thoughts, sensations of nausea, feelings of sadness—everything that came into my awareness became a passing wave in a greater sea of my intention to be awake and free to give.
By the time I was ready to walk onstage, feeling the pounding in my heart and the vibrations in my stomach, I knew that no matter what happened I could be right there to experience it, and I didn’t need to leave any part of myself backstage. The performance went well, but perhaps the most significant part of the experience was knowing I’d given the audience my whole self, without regret or apology. Hearing their applause and congratulations afterwards, I knew that they were not just applauding the performance itself, but also thanking me for my sincere efforts to prepare and for my courage in being seen and heard—in sharing myself onstage.
If you also wish to experience more freedom in your playing, here are some ideas.
1. Think about when you notice constriction most. Ask yourself deeply what it is about these situations that provokes the feeling of contraction or tightness—the circumstances, the setting, the people involved?
2. Acknowledge that the tension you’re experiencing is the result of a sincere wish to create something beautiful and meaningful.
3. Try to assess honestly how your drive for perfection has served you and how it has inhibited you.
4. If your habits of constriction are limiting you physically, and especially if they are injuring you, seek help from a qualified professional. Alexander technique, Feldenkrais, or a teacher of your instrument who emphasizes good body mechanics can help you find a more easeful and natural approach to your instrument, which can promote mental and emotional ease as well.
5. Experiment, on your own or with people you trust, with letting go of the idea of re-creating something perfect. You might practice very slowly, improvise, or play a familiar piece in an unusual or spontaneous way. Even if the result isn’t what you want, notice that you do in fact have the freedom to do something different in any given moment. If you can let go of labeling sounds as “good” or “bad,” even better! Or if something sounds really terrible, you can laugh about it!
6. Imagine a situation that makes you nervous or uncomfortable, and really “put” yourself there, with all of the corresponding sensations, thoughts, and emotions. First, try mentally saying “no” to everything that enters your awareness, and notice what effect that has. Then, try saying “yes.” If this practice works for you, you can also use it during meditation or during any uncomfortable situation you might encounter.
The Gift of Freedom
As artists, we offer a gift to our audience every time we perform, and we would do well to consider the real potential of that gift. The most useful gift an artist can bestow is not a perfect ship in a bottle, as impressive as that might be. Far better would be a real boat, hewn from living wood, that can carry us from familiar territory to the vast shores of the unknown that stretch out before us. Art, practiced with sincerity, can be the vessel that keeps us afloat on the unpredictable seas in our journey.
By emphasizing letting go of perfectionism I don’t mean to downplay the importance of skill. Becoming skilled as a musician is a necessary, worthy, and useful goal. But we lose something very dear when we allow technical mastery to become the end instead of the means, or when we decide that we must become technically bulletproof to be permitted to speak and take up space. Each time we find the courage to fully inhabit musical space just as we are, without trying to hide our flaws, we are actually giving ourselves, each other, and our audiences the space to be fully human. And that’s a far greater gift than a flawless performance.
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