Over Obsessing and Perfectionism: With Music, Life

I studied music casually from the end of second grade to nineth grade, playing both trumpet and piano. I became more “serious” and much better towards the end of my High School years, which allowed me to continue playing music in college. I was a member of a jazz honor band and auditioned for state and regional honor orchestras.

One thing I learned as I grew up participating in music was that to consider a performance “good”, you had to play the piece of music flawlessly. You had to execute the correct tempo, play intune, and with the fullest, purest, sound possible. You had to follow dynamics and time signatures, and render rhythmic passages in perfect time.

As I strove to give the best performance possible, I fell into the obvious rut of chasing perfectionism. As I progressed to more difficult music (atleast more difficult for me) my instructors constantly gave me feedback that would help me improve my performance. On one hand, this is the sign of a good instructor, but on the other, I felt as if I was simply “not good enough”, not talented enough, or as if I could NEVER play the music correctly. This feeling was compounded by being around more advanced musicians who could play a work masterfully, while my best effort was tarnished with poor sound quality, counting errors, or sloppy playing.

Thus, I came to the realization that musicianship is in some ways a pursuit of perfectionism. Of course, I intellectually know that true perfectionism is impossible. I also know that to be considered “good”, however, you have to perform damn near as perfect as possible.

This feeling set my own expectations so high that I would often “choke”, out of fear of messing up, and would give a performance less than what I was capable of. Furthermore, if I did have a good performance, I was still able to find areas which needed improvement, areas which distinguished me as average in ability compared to more talented peers. I became my own worst critic. It eventually became mentally and physically painful if I performed poorly, because I would beat myself up for days afterwards.

In the end, when practicing or listening to music, I became, (and still am) very obsessive about understanding what is going on in the music, particularly with respect to rhythm, melodic passages, and time.

Here are a few examples of how obsessive I can be:

  • Music practice rooms in college came equipped with pianos. When I was tired from practicing my trumpet, I would often step to the piano and play whatever came to mind (usually improvised licks over chord patterns of my own). Other times, I would attempt to execute flawless technical passages and scales. This drove me crazy, but I was hell bent on doing these exercises correctly. I once spent an hour straight attempting to play a perfect chromatic scale from the bottom of the piano to the top with my right hand, at a moderate tempo. After fumbling the first few times, I became more and more obsessive about getting it right, to the point that I lost track of time and repeated the scale endlessly until I was satisfied. I simply could not walk away unless I did it perfect.
  • If (insert name of classmate here) can play it, so can I. I was very competitive as a musician. I wanted to be considered a top musician/composer and often drove myself to great lengths by constanly comparing myself to peers. If I heard a peer play a musical passage correctly, or heard a professor compliment a peer on a good composition, I made an effort to equal and in some cases out-do my peer. I gauged my success by ranking myself among my school’s musicians, or by measuring the strength of compliments I received from teachers in an effort to gain their respect and affections.
  • Endless repetition of rhythm and counting. At times, I struggled with counting rhythms and more complex pieces of music. As a result, when practicing, I would repeat the same passage, be it one measure or one hundred, over and over until my mind was numb or I got it perfectly right. When it came time to perform, I was terrified that I would play the passage incorrectly, disapointing not only myself, but others around me. I didn’t want to look as if I was a slack musician. This put an inordinate amount of pressure on me, and I often caved out of mental exhaustion and self criticism.

Even though I don’t study or compose music formally anymore, these perfectionist tendancies continue.

I was listening to “Heaven Scent” by DJ Bedrock the other night, a dance/rave electronic piece of music. When the melody evolved into the song’s famous theme, I stopped my MP3 player and repeated it over and over again for a couple hours until I thought I could reproduce it 100% correctly. I did this so long that I didn’t go to bed until sun-up, and even then I repeated the music in my head while trying to sleep. This resulted in mental exhaustion and anger that I couldn’t get it right, and I began to lose interest in simply enjoying the music for what it was.

Just yesterday I was listening to “Within Attraction” by Yanni, performed live at the Acropolis in Greece. The bulk of this expressive piece is written in 7/8 time signature, an uncommon mode in Western music, but frequently used in Eastern Europe and India. The piece swells to a climax at the end when virtuoso violinists Karen Briggs and Shahrdad Rohani engage in an intense duel, playing improvised, complicated passages over Yanni’s relatively simple background vamp. The duel is astonishing, and even more so executed in 7/8 time. So, I decided to spend 3 hours counting the time out on my own, and while listenting to the music, so that I could “master” the rhythm. Again and again, I counted out the time to perfectly match that played by the orchestra in Yanni’s ensemble. As with other vain attempts at musical perfection, I did this so much that my mind turned to jello and I had to take a Klonopin in order to silence my thoughts so that I could get off to sleep.

The fact is, not all of us can be musical virtuosos. Achieving this level of musicianship takes great talent, dedication, and time commitment. By the same token, however, I put myself down if I can not follow a musical passage because I have studied music formally, and therefore should be able to replicate what I hear to a reasonable level of accuracy.

When I can’t reproduce the music or rhythm correctly, I criticize myself endlessly for days and get depressed.

My psychiatrist used to say, “just listen and enjoy the music for what it is.” This is a good thought and something I try to do. At times, however, I can’t seem to enjoy the music unless I feel I have it under control, and if I don’t, I fall into despair.

My musical perfectionist tendancies overflow into other areas of life as well: my internet website programming, writing this blog, and speaking good English to name a few.

One day, I’d love to simply “enjoy something for what it is” opposed to trying to master it. When this day arrives, I think my mind, for once, will not criticize nor turn into mush, but instead will truly feel at ease and happy. For once, I will do something not for the sake of perfectionism, but for the sake of pure happiness and enjoyment. It is this state of mind that I believe motivates true musical virtuosos, and keeps them happy even when they feel doubt.

To just feel happy and enjoy something is what I need to master, not the process of reproducing the act itself.

One Reply to “Over Obsessing and Perfectionism: With Music, Life”

  1. Within Attraction is my favourite too! You are very right, The 7 beat system is quite popular in India. The song is one of the greatest hits of Yanni who is presently preparing to come out with some amazing new music which he has already featured on Yanni.com. There will be a World Tour later this year. May be you might like the new music 🙂

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