As many of you might be aware, I am opposed to the perfectionist ideology; over the past few years, I have been inadvertently creating a small manifesto outlining the damaging mental-health effects of imposed perfectionism. I was utterly amazed by a student’s retort when, while reassuring this individual that “it does not need to be perfect”, they replied, “you’re right, I do not subscribe to the cult of perfectionism”.
A profound and equally fascinating thought.
I have many theoretical models for analysing the thought-processes of ‘the student’ based on the understanding of perfectionism; a subject for another piece of writing. However, the use of Cult here is interesting language that sent me down a fascinating path of research.
To be perfect is impossible; I can make this statement because perfection is considered an ideal state which does not exist in reality existing solely as an idealised theoretical subjective state within the mind. My thought on what is considered ‘perfect’ and your thought on what is considered ‘perfect’ will be very different things. This is caused by how we perceive reality; perspective changes the observation and the experience of the observed thing.
For me to impose an insistence on being perfect onto my student will set them up to fail in any future undertakings. Ultimately the student experiencing the subjugation will never meet the expectation of what my specific idealised perfect state of being is. Furthermore, controversial to the popular opinion within music and music teaching circles, however rhetorically stated, why should anyone try to be perfect?
There exists an undertone within the education system, particularly from the perspective of the parent and the teacher that unless a student receives top marks that they have not achieved anything. I can recall numerous times when a parent shows disdain or disappointment because their child – using their word – ‘simply’ passes an exam. Excuse me, but was that not the point?
I have a strong belief that everybody can, but unfortunately, not everybody will, meaning, every person alive today has the potential to do great things, but due to factors both in and out of their control, not every person will meet their potential. Within education, in this context specifically referring to music lessons, the focus is always the result with little consideration for the process or the point from which that process begins.
Two hypothetical candidates could take the same test and receive two radically different results due to factors surrounding how the task was approached before even the first of any attended lessons. ‘Student A’ might come from a family where music is a cherished activity; listening, performing and discussing music are daily occurrences. ‘Student B’ might come from a family where music is considered a side-line hobby which is only exercised in their fifteen-minute lesson at school and not ever at home.
In this instance, it would be safe to have the inclination to believe ‘Student A’ would obviously perform more competently in their test, receiving a higher mark than ‘Student B’. If by chance they performed equally, receiving the same if not similar mark, the value of those marks would be drastically different respectively. ‘Student B’ would have had to work at an increased level of effort in contrast to ‘Student A’ to get the same result. A perfectionist would not discriminate between these factors, simply applauding the highest result, again rejecting the process and journey of learning traversed.
In a similar but slightly different way, I can recall the sage advice from my head of year at secondary school, David Torn:
“If you work your socks off, revising, and get a D, good for you. But, if you sit there and do nothing complacently getting a D when you could work and get an A or A-star, you should be ashamed because you let yourself down.”
Even now, I can recall the school assembly in the sports hall at the start of the revision term for Year 11 GCSE exams all these years later. Despite how the above statement reads, Mr Torn was not suggesting to be better than we were, but to reach our full potential. An amazing teacher, he knew every student in his year group, intimately, by name. He could recall parents’ names and family histories; after six years, our year group became a family headed by him. Looking up his various teaching profiles would be a sufficient reflection of this; a great teacher.
I do believe as a teacher in the process of self-improvement, however, “being the best that you can be”, and “being better than you can be” are two different things; the former is personal self-improvement, the latter is striving for the unattainable, perfection. How can any person be better than they can be? I can understand the language here being subtle, however, subtlety does not reduce the subliminal effects. Sometimes subtlety can make them more impactful.
Learning is a process, not a result; the most proficient learners pay little attention to the result of a test but pay attention to the actual process of learning all year round.
Strive to be the best you can be, not, better than you are.
Dylan completed his music training with honours at Colchester Institute, where he studied piano with Australian pianist Lesley Young, and composition with British composer Dr Mark Bellis. While studying, in 2009, Dylan won Colchester Institute’s Canon Jack Award for Solo Piano adjudicated by Andrew Ball. A composer, promoter, and advocate of contemporary classical music, Dylan joined the membership of Colchester New Music in 2014.
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