The Myth of Perfection – Practising the Piano

The Myth of Perfection was first published in February of 2014. I’ve decided to republish as part of this summer holiday series of posts from the past, in the hope that it will give a little perspective on the subject.

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Many of us are caught in the trap of perfectionism, and yet attaining flawlessness is so anti-human. Music played perfectly would actually be boring and predictable – what makes performance interesting is the human element, and what makes it electrifying is the element of risk when the performer is pushing the boundaries of what is possible or imaginable (and might even teeter over the edge here and there). Here’s what Beethoven had so say about this!

To play a wrong note is insignificant; to play without passion is inexcusable.

No live performance can ever truly be note-perfect, and no single interpretation can ever be the one true realisation of the musical possibilities of particular piece. It’s precisely this difference between the ideal and the reality where the humanity of musical performance lies, and the wrong notes in Alfred Cortot’s recordings matter not one iota to the communication of the music’s beauty. I would even go as far as to say it what makes me love his recordings all the more – they show greatness and fallibility at the same time. The problem is that audiences raised on a steady diet of today’s recordings (often a collection of the best takes spliced together) only recognise the perfection possible in that scenario, and are unprepared for live performances.

Perfectionism has been defined in psychology as:

A personality disposition characterized by an individual striving for flawlessness and setting excessively high performance standards, accompanied by overly critical self-evaluations and concerns regarding others’ evaluations. (Stoeber and Childs, 2010).

In an ideal world, we would never practise any wrong notes or other errors, and therefore this would drastically reduce the likelihood of our playing any subsequently. I notice how some students might wince in pain as they play a wrong note during a lesson. One or two of these derailments in a row and they might even stop completely as though frozen by horror at their imagined crime of ineptitude, waiting for the ground to swallow them up. If it were easy to play the piano, then everyone would be doing it! Learning a piece is a process that takes time, and a performance is honed and seasoned from often humble beginnings as we input the notes into our fingers and brain. As I tell all my students, if you feel judged as you play this will have nothing to do with me – it’s your own inner judges (these are usually unexorcised ghosts from our past).

Healthy v. Neurotic Perfectionism

So how does all of this relate to practising and the process of learning as you take a piece from the early stages through to finished product? I want to make a distinction between healthy perfectionism (the drive to get everything just right and to do the best job imaginable, and then some) and neurotic perfectionism (when nothing you achieve is ever going to be good enough). Healthy perfectionism drives us ever onwards and upwards, and is vital for stellar progress and excellence. We feel good about ourselves and the process, and know that our aims are attainable. Neurotic perfectionism cripples us because we forget we are human beings and not machines – we set goals that are not attainable and beat ourselves up for not realising them.

Wrong Notes and Other Errors

I’m sure we can agree that there is a very obvious distinction between performing and practising. When we perform, we don’t stop for anything, when we practise we absolutely must stop and make corrections. Correcting can also embrace the concept of refinement, getting exactly the sound we want, producing a desired effect or making a passage feel better in our body. I identify another type of practising that, for me, is a vital part of the process of performance preparation – practising a performance.

Practising a Performance

In the confines of our own practice room (perhaps occasionally with a microphone as listener), or in front of our teacher we begin at the beginning and we play right through to the end, come what may. It is important not to do this too soon, only when we have gone through the first stages of thorough learning, and to remember that the first time (or first few times) we do this we might be very disappointed with our results. All our hours of careful and painstaking efforts appear to come to naught as passages we thought we had mastered crumble beneath our fingers. Do not get dispirited! Clock your mistakes and make a plan to return to them afterwards. Once you are clear on the weak spots, do some practice on those areas and then move on. The next time you decide to play through (and remember, a playthrough must be a conscious choice and not an accident) those spots may have sorted themselves out – or not. If not, go through the practice routine again. The combination of playthroughs in alternation with spot practice is a terrific process for performance preparation, in fact I know of none better.

I advise you need to work with tremendous devotion, dedication and concentration whilst realising that nothing of this matters at all during the actual performance. If you’re anxious about your playing, you won’t really do it that well. I’ll leave you with the words of Jascha Heifetz:

Practice like it means everything in the world to you. Perform like you don’t give a damn.


William Westney: The Perfect Wrong Note: Learning to Trust Your Musical Self 

Eloise Ristad: A Soprano on Her Head: Right-side-up Reflections on Life and Other Performances

Barry Green/Timothy Gallwey: The Inner Game of Music 

Cavaliers and Roundheads (my blog post on developing performance skills)

Practice v Performance (a previous post of mine on the subject)

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