I’m a bit of a perfectionist. There, I said it. It’s a horrible admission, but I have to confess it up front. I can also say, though, that advancing age and accumulated experience have given me some tools to fight perfectionism. What I want to share with you today is what it means to be a perfectionist and a choir leader, the unfortunate consequences that can arise from perfectionism, and a few tips for combating that overwhelming drive to be perfect.
What it’s like to be a perfectionist and a choir leader
To my mind, perfectionism stems from fear; fear that what you do, and by extention what you are, is not good enough. It’s the nagging voice in your head that tells you that you should have done better, even when you’ve done well. Ironically, perfectionists can be some of the most flexible, accommodating and supportive people, but only to others. I would never dream of being as demanding of others as I am of myself!
In my role as a choir leader, that paradox is all too evident. I’m very proud of my singers and I praise them to the skies because I genuinely think they work hard and give fantastic performances. My own work comes in for much sharper criticism. However well-planned my rehearsals are, I could always have done more. However well-received my choir’s performances are, I could always have been better prepared.
Perfectionism leads to procrastination and paralysis
Of course, perfectionism isn’t all bad, by any means. It can propel some people to achieve extraordinary things, but the flipside is rampant procrastination. If you can’t do something perfectly, why not put it off until it can be perfect? To anyone reading this who has never experienced these feelings, it must sound a little puzzling. If you’re driven to try to achieve the highest possible standard in something, why on earth wouldn’t you start straight away and maximise your chances? Well, we’re back to the issue of fear.
Let’s take my shockingly poor piano-playing as an example. I want to be able to play the piano better. I know that it would give me pleasure and enhance my working life as a choir and workshop leader, but I rarely practise. In fact, practising the piano is the first thing that gets thrown out of my schedule. I’m always too busy, yet I miraculously find time to watch television, listen to music, go out with friends etc etc. So what’s really going on?
I think the answer is that the perfectionist in me isn’t willing to accept the possibility that I might be, at best, a deeply mediocre pianist. If I don’t practise the piano, I can’t ever really fail at playing the piano – it’s just something I haven’t got around to yet. When I do get around to it, obviously I will be perfect at it!
How to curb your perfectionism and learn to let things go
The danger in allowing perfectionism to take over is that you just never feel satisfied with anything you achieve. Everything could have been done better, more, earlier. You can also end up never quite feeling that you’ve really finished any task. You didn’t actually complete your score preparation for a particular piece; you were just interrupted by the inconvenient need to go and rehearse it with your choir.
Here are three ways I’ve learned to keep that inner perfectionist in check and remind myself now and then that it’s not only fine to get things wrong/do things badly/let standards slip, it’s positively to be encouraged.
1. Just show up
If you’re tempted to to put something off until the perfect opportunity when you will knuckle down and do it perfectly, try this. Just show up. If you want to practise the piano every day, decide that you’re just going to show up and sit at the piano, even if you just play a couple of scales. Okay, it’s not the 90 minutes of intense work that you will definitely, DEFINITELY, do every day at some nebulous point in the future, but it’s something. And it will help you to create a new habit. Just show up. Chances are, you’ll do more than you think.
2. Be your own best friend
When you hear that vicious little voice in your head telling you that whatever you’re doing isn’t good enough, ask yourself: would I speak to my best friend like that? Most of us treat ourselves much less kindly than we would dream of treating any other human being. If your best friend wanted to achieve something, would you insist on perfection and admonish anything less? Of course you wouldn’t. You’d encourage, support, help and praise little achievements along the way. Maybe we could all be a little kinder to ourselves.
3. Play the “what if” game
Perfectionists can often catastrophise failure, so it can be helpful to play this little game in your head and make your fears tangible. What if you went to your next choir rehearsal badly-prepared? What would happen? Perhaps you’d fluff a few things here and there – bring the wrong section in, start something at the wrong tempo. You know what? The sky wouldn’t fall in. In the worst-case scenario, some of your choir members might think you were a little off your game. I’m not suggesting that you give up working hard and striving to do well, I’m just saying that if you’re going to fear something, know exactly what it is.
And finally, here’s a quote that I think sums it all up, from Leonard Cohen, who knew a thing or two about music.