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The “Perfect” Problem
… and the damage it does to your music.
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The “Perfect” Problem

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Posted by Dylan Christopher, 2 years ago
Tags: thoughts, perfectionism, musicianship

The “Perfect” Problem

“If you do not get a distinction in your exam,

… that's it! No more piano lessons!”

~ Angry Parent


My heart sinks when I hear these words from an ill-advised parent; at this point, however, the damage has already been done.  I am left with little else to do other than to sit patiently and salvage what is left of my lesson.

I can recall this scenario happening at three separate times during my career.  The frustrating part is, on all these occasions, the parent did not cease lessons.  Tuition did stop, but after quite some time, and for unrelated reasons.

So, why make the threat, in the first place?

Something I have had to learn, over my time learning and teaching, also as a musician, is that “It will never be perfect”.  Please do not misunderstand me, some performances will be amazing; musicians at the very height of their ability will produce some truly magnificent playing, however even from their perspective, they will be content but looking to improve somehow.

The problem with perfectionism is that it is a flawed concept, particularly so within the arts.  Academic disciplines generally tend to be quantitative, meaning finite data is tested and collected.  If there is a set limit to the tested information, it is possible to achieve full marks; more so, it is possible to be consistent all of the time.

Art is a qualitative discipline; qualities are subjective, and subjectivity is messy.  Two people listening to a piece of music will hear two different things, respectively, based on their perspective.  For an object or subject to be perfect, it must be flawless, however, if whenever it is perceived, it is taken incomplete, cherry-picked, based on whatever attributes the perceiver values, it can never be perfect, and will always have inconsistent results.

In today’s exam oriented climate, students have developed coping strategies to deal with the staggering number of exams they are required to sit over any given academic year.  For many, ‘cram’ learning takes place; whereby the student spends every waking moment leading up to an exam "revising".  Once the exam is taken, the information is disregarded, never to be used again.

In music lessons, these students show themselves, by only practising when an exam is imminent, or sitting a Grade 5 theory exam, but then failing to answer, when questioned, rudimentary theory questions asked of a Grade 1 candidate.  Ironically, these are the same students who achieve Grade 8 on any instrument, only to never play it again, once they have received the certificate.  All of these traits are those of perfectionism and perfectionists; the focus is always the result, never the learning.

It is a learned behaviour that is damaging to a student’s long-term learning.  Let’s for a moment examine the pattern of behaviour; a student learns to "revise" by cherry picking "relevant" information, only to disregard it afterwards. The habit that forms is, not to retain any information long-term, and only keep it short term.  Owing to this, links between pieces of information can never be made.

For a musician, this is problematic; music is a skill-based discipline, that forms over a long-term period (for most, a lifetime).  If the information is disregarded in this manner, the highest levels of playing can never be reached, simply because there is no foundation on which to build it.

These types of student often pick up pieces of music, far beyond their ability, spending years attempting to "perfect" them, more often than not, failing.  It is the before mentioned cherry picking that causes this; they only see information that forwards their agenda to perfectionism; the focus as ever, the destination and not the journey (i.e. the result, and not the learning needed to truly achieve it).

Approaching music in this manner only ensures two things for certain; firstly, that the music will never be reached, and secondly, the insurmountable pressure of having to be 'perfect'.  This level of pressure is not needed, and is a hindrance to development, inhibiting the student from reaching their full potential. 

We must accept that in music there can never be any perfect performances, only more or less accurate performances, or, more or less enjoyable performances, based entirely on the perspectives of the listener and their inherent biases.


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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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