Fighting A Musician’s Tendency Toward Perfectionism, Part Seven

A young boy developing his strategy to win his battle.

Part Seven: Fight Your Battle


You’ve made it through the recruitment process (see parts one, two, and three). You’ve made it through basic training (see parts four, five, and six). Now comes the real test: fighting the battle. Though the war may be ongoing, every battle you win makes you stronger and forces the enemy to retreat. The best way to win the war with perfectionism is to win every battle. How do you win a battle?


First, you’ll need to define winning. Is it holding the line or taking a hill? Is it completing the day’s practice time, dividing your practice time appropriately between materials, not feeling tense when you finish a performance, or being able to enjoy playing with others? Think about what your perfectionism is currently keeping you from accomplishing.

Make sure your strategic goal is measurable. “A performance that was musical” isn’t a measurable goal. Try “a performance where I played three clear dynamic levels, successfully incorporated a decrescendo, and ended the song with a ritard.” If you’ve achieved your strategic goal by the end of the battle, you’ll know you’ve won.

Make sure your strategic goal is within your control. The National Association Of School Psychologists (NASP) writes, “Students may not control how difficult the test is for them, but they can control how long they study for it,” and “…instead of having the goal of getting an A on a test, use the goal of studying for 60 minutes that night.” Be careful not to make your definition of success someone else’s approval or happiness.

Make sure your strategic goal is realistic. In part one of this series, setting excessively high standards was a key component of perfectionism. Don’t let the enemy win before exchanging the first blows! If you’re not sure if your goal is too high, try asking these three questions:

  • Is my goal achievable for me?
  • Can I achieve my goal without sacrificing balance in my life and the things that are important to me?
  • Is it likely that I will achieve my goal with a reasonable amount of focused work?
    A young girl writing her battle plan against perfectionism in a notebook.

    Once you’ve established your strategic goal, you’ll need to break your goal into smaller objectives. Setting small objectives can solve problems that perfectionism causes, such as feeling overwhelmed, procrastinating, or feeling like you’re wasting your time. Stephanie Owen, for Kansas Music Review, writes, “Perfectionists can often become overwhelmed and give up too quickly and setting goals is a great way to highlight and see progress.” Just like with your strategic goal, all of your smaller objectives should be realistic, within your control, and measurable.


        Kayla J. Grey writes, “In a study done by Orzel, collegiate musicians consistently indicated that they had high levels of music related stress. The most common stressor was found to be schoolwork and the ability to manage one’s time.” Perfectionist students can feel that they must accomplish everything now, resulting in too-long and too-intense practice. Perfectionist students can feel that they can’t accomplish everything now, resulting in no practice. They often swing like a pendulum between the two feelings, resulting in a lack of consistency that invariably leads to lack of progress.

        A great first step is to map your weekly schedule. When are you home to practice? How much of that time is filled by other responsibilities? How much of that time at home needs to be devoted to rest, nutrition, exercise, fun, time alone, or time to connect with others? After assessing these things, decide when to practice each week.

        After you’ve created your timetable, stick to it. Try to put in your allotted time, but not more (remember the perfectionist monster’s pendulum). After a few weeks, you can adjust your timetable plan if needed. NASP suggests “For perfectionistic children who spend too long on assignments, set aside a specific time for homework to be completed. Use a timer and let them know when time is up.” Students may even find it helpful to plan and time each item on their practice list.

        A family creating the battle plan against perfection together.

        An army of one is easily over-run. Bring your team along. Ask them to weigh in on your goal, plan of battle, and timetable. They’ll tell you if you’re still setting your goals too high, not setting measurable objectives, or not allowing yourself enough time to fight well.

        Next week, read the final installment on fighting perfectionism: addressing the troops.