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Combating perfectionism

It’s recital week here in the Gessner Oboe Studio. About half of my students are going to perform solo pieces this Sunday at our studio recital, and I’ve been having a lot of conversations combating and reframing perfectionism this week.

I think musicians of all levels can fall into the trap of perfectionism. It’s partly because we care so deeply about representing the composer’s vision of the piece, but it’s also built into the structures of music education throughout our learning journey. In lessons and ensemble rehearsals, teachers emphasize things like playing the right notes and rhythms, executing dynamic changes when it’s written into the music, and adding the right speed of vibrato at the right moment. When we focus on these tiny details, we encourage students to listen and think critically. Over time, we expect that the attention to detail will become a habit, but it also often becomes perfectionism.

I don’t think that it’s controversial to say that perfectionism is not a desired result of studying music. In fact, I’ve noticed that the music can suffer due to perfectionism when phrases become disjointed, embouchure becomes lax or tense, and air support decreases. While we need our students to be self-aware and correct their mistakes, we also need them to remember that perfection isn’t the goal of performance.

In my studio I notice perfectionism coming up around the time of recitals and auditions. I’ve noticed that perfectionism often manifests as performance anxiety. Some of my students come right out and tell me that they’re scared of the upcoming audition or recital or solo during a band concert. Others don’t share their feelings until I ask them about it, so I make a point of asking students about their feelings in advance of a performance specifically so we can manage their anxieties and re-frame the perfectionism that often lies at the heart of their worries.

This week I’ve been starting the conversation by asking students to consider why we perform and what our objectives are for the upcoming recital. We’ve come up with a wonderful list of objectives:

  • To have fun

  • To share what I’ve learned

  • To express the vibe of the piece

  • To get more experience performing

  • To share my piece with an audience/to introduce the audience to the piece

After our conversations, each of my students went home with 1 or 2 objectives to focus on that made them feel more confident about the upcoming recital. They can use these objectives as a kind of mantra to help them feel calm and collected before they play.

We don’t teach music because it’s a job… we teach music because we love music AND we love sharing our love of music with our students. As you go into your final performances of the school year, I encourage you to have perfectionism-busting conversations with your students, so they can let go of any perfectionist thinking, and really enjoy their final performances!

Until next week,



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