Fighting A Musician’s Tendency Toward Perfectionism, Part Eight

Parents addressing their troops: a young boy and a young girl.

Part Eight: Addressing The Troops


In this series we’ve examined different ways to fight perfectionism. We started by defining perfectionism and deciding whether we should fight it, learned that all musicians are susceptible to it and must view it as an enemy, determined who we needed on our team, what tools and skills we needed, and how we can win battles. But there’s one final step left to complete: addressing the troops. Perfectionists may address themselves – and must learn to do this as advanced students – but for beginners, a trusted team member will need to complete this job.

A key definition of perfectionism is a demand to meet overly-high goals. states that it might look like perfectionists are being “stubborn, lazy, irritated and refusing to accept help – but really, at the heart of it all – they are anxious…a squirming mass of nerves, trying desperately to avoid failing, making mistakes and feeling bad about themselves.” This makes how we respond to our perfectionistic self (or student) crucial: addressing the troops can spur them on to greater things, but it also has the potential to set them back.

Mother addressing perfectionism in crying daughter

A long campaign is wearing, and the middle of a campaign can be especially dangerous. Robert H. Woody for Psychology Today writes: “For many self-proclaimed perfectionists, in moments when they accept that they cannot reach their desired goal of being perfect, they may settle for just appearing to be perfect. This can lead to bizarre behaviors as a musician tries to broadcast to those around him an image of someone who he really isn’t. These behaviors can include self-handicapping….” Perfectionists who fear failure may even embrace failure before it is inevitable, simply as a way of coping with their stress and fear.

For these reasons, it’s important to address the troops regularly. A good commander won’t wait until the battle is lost: he’ll be assessing the situation and adjusting as necessary: “…check in with your child to see if the plans are being followed. Don’t be afraid to be flexible and make changes to the plan if your child is struggling to keep up,” writes The National Association Of School Psychologists (NASP). Often perfectionists will need help and practice to realize that a change of tactics is not the same as a failure. NASP also states that it’s important to “Reward work immediately…. Do not wait for a grade or an evaluation.”

    A weekly calendar set out to schedule regular check-ins for addressing the troops.

    Stephanie Owen, for Kansas Music Review, writes that “A study by Haimovitz and Dweck showed that children’s intelligence mindset was determined by their parent’s failure mindset.” We’ve discussed mistakes, but failing due to poor decisions is also a necessary part of the learning process. When this happens, students must learn to focus on the decisions rather than the failure. Students must ask themselves “What went wrong?” and “What caused it to go wrong?” before planning how to adapt in the future.

    Kayla J. Grey states “What is interesting about adaptive perfectionists is how they respond to failures. If they fail, they do not get upset and worked up, as maladaptive perfectionists do; rather, they simply figure out what went wrong and move forward.”


      For perfectionists, how we address success may be even more important than how we address failure. Grey writes that a study done in 2007 suggests “children may develop perfectionistic behaviors because they hear extreme praise from the adults in their environment.” Similarly, writes that students hear people “talk enthusiastically about awards, certificates and grades. Sometimes we look at and comment on their grades more than their effort….” Instead of focusing praise on results, try focusing praise on the student’s:

      • Intentions
      • Perseverance
      • Courage
      • Effort
      • Cool-headedness
      • Ability to have fun
      • Willingness to share their gifts
      Friendly woman in glasses addressing different kinds of success
      • Balance
      • Creativity
      • Efficiency
      • Cooperative spirit
      • Progress
      • Service as a good role model for others

      Perfectionism may be something we must all continuously fight, but if we learn to deal with perfectionism well, there’s evidence it can transform into something better. Jeong and Ryan, write that “facilitative perfectionism has been associated with more positive traits and consequences, such as the development of coping mechanisms, mediating anxiety, organized and increased practice time, more awards, decreased MPA [music performance anxiety], and better performances,” as well as “establishing high personal standards,” “self-discipline,” and “high levels of intrinsic motivation.”

      So, the next time you visualize your perfectionism monster, imagine beating it back until it retreats into a cocoon, from which it will emerge a beautiful creature.