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Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Case for Perfection

A thought struck me today: parents today do not want their children to strive for perfection.

That seems a bit harsh, I told myself. Do you really want to take that extreme position?

I am not sure, but as I look at parental behaviors concerning their children, I sometimes wonder if this harsh position is not indeed what parents want, or in this case, do not want.

My next thoughts were, What does perfection mean exactly? Is perfection a good thing to strive for after all? What reasons could parents subconsciously have for not helping their children to achieve perfection? Teachers want perfection in their students, right? Is there anything that we teachers can do to encourage our parents to want this same lofty goal?

Is anything ever perfect? No, probably not, I concluded. I think perfection is one of those illusory goals. We strive to achieve it for a variety of reasons: accolades, awards, success, challenge. I think, however, that the reason we strive for perfection is that it makes us become more than who we are at the moment we first begin to strive for perfection.

A muscle does not become stronger unless it is challenged. This muscle challenge process is quite interesting. In order to form or strengthen a muscle, it must first be torn down. We exercise it, but we must challenge the muscle with our exercise. We cannot keep working the muscle the same way that we started or it will not grow. Muscles are made up of many tiny fibers. We must stress the muscle (micro trauma), and tiny little micro tears appear in the fibers. Over the next 48 hours, the muscle will repair the fiber tears more strongly than before. If we stress the muscle again, the process of rebuilding and strengthening will continue.

When we strive for perfection, the moment at which we attempt to measure whether we have achieved perfection is gone in a flash. We can only evaluate what has now become a memory or past event. If we were to set up another evaluation to measure whether we have achieved perfection anew, we would measure another past point in time. This is what I meant by perfection being one of those illusory goals. It does not remain static. It is by its very definition just out of reach. Like a muscle, however, the striving for perfection will result in strength. Whenever we strive for something, we will become stronger in the process of striving. Sounds circular, I know, like the chicken and the egg scenario. Think of the circle as a hamster wheel. The purpose of the wheel is to encourage exercise. Just get on the wheel already and let the exercise process begin.

What parental behaviors do I see that leads me to make the observation that parents do not seem to want their children to achieve perfection? Here is a short list of parental behaviors as they relate to the music studio:
  • Parents often do not practice consistently with their children. In many cases, I am unsure whether parents really understand the concept of practice and how it should be done. I spend a great deal of time teaching the parents about practice techniques. 
  • Parents often do not adequately supervise how their children perform and practice.
  • Parents often do not require perfection in practice or practice habits. The child is left to adopt unhealthy posture habits. Parents seem to routinely allow inadequate work to suffice.
  • Parents liberally offer many possible excuses for not doing adequate work at home or for allowing the child to turn in less than stellar home practice work.
  • Parents seem to allow their children to spend an inadequate amount of time to work on developing a skill or ability.
  • Parents often seem not to make many strong demands on their children to do work of any kind, to earn the right to relax and have fun, or to experience the logical consequences to the children's choices regarding behavior. Gosh, even parents do not make this strong demand on themselves, if you review the list I just made.

Why do I think parents do not want perfection? One reason may be that striving for perfection would involve work. This kind of work might require the parent to step out of him- or herself and operate outside of an entrenched comfort zone. Another reason may be that parents are too busy or want their job of parenting to be easy or easier.

The sad news, I must tell you, is that the job of parenting is not easy and will not ever become easy. The job of parenting will not end. The job continues even after the child has moved out of the home, become an adult, or married and started a family. My husband calls it the "job for life." Parenting is indeed a lifelong commitment. Parenting is indeed work. If a parent cares at all about the child, the parent will be willing to put in the time and effort to make sure the job is done and done correctly.

Yes, I believe that teachers want their students to strive for and achieve perfection, whatever perfection should look like at the moment. I believe that teachers choose this profession because of their innate desire to make the world a better place, even an "ideal" place if you will. We teachers do the best we can under the circumstances. We have the opportunity to teach the child a fraction of the time in a child's week, and yet, we generally approach our job with as much effort as we can. We strive for perfection because this is the way we can bring out the best possible result in a child.

How can teachers encourage parents to share this vision of the value of striving for perfection? There may be several possible ways:

Role Modeling: As a teacher and performing professional musician, I model for my students and their parents what it looks like to strive for perfection. I am not perfect, but I do not lower my standards for myself. I continue to challenge myself with new repertoire and new performance opportunities. [I am performing in Carnegie Hall next week with the Artisan Quartet -- a dream come true for any musician!] I continue to study new subjects and revisit old subjects with new perspective.

Standards: I set high standards for myself, my students, and my students' parents. I expect my students and their parents to do the best that they can. I am here to help at all times, but I will not permit my students or their parents to allow me to do the work for them which should rightfully be completed by my students and their parents.

Information: I provide a great deal of parenting and teaching information to my studio parents in the form of my initial parent education course and throughout the course of a student's musical study program with me. I maintain this teaching blog, and as many of you know, I spend a great deal of time sharing useful information about parenting as well as teaching.

Love: Finally, let me urge parents to love their children. When a parent loves his or her child, the parent will do what needs to be done to help the child. The parent will want what is best for the child, and the parent will seek out other people who can help the parent to achieve that lofty goal. I believe that perfection is a lofty goal and most definitely in the best interest of the child.

Where love is deep, much can be accomplished. -- Dr. Shinichi Suzuki

For another perspective about perfection, please visit Dr. Laura Markham's newsletter issue: "Perfection is too low a Standard".


  1. Paula,

    I have admired your blog (from afar and silently!) for quite a few months now... I so appreciate the thought you put into this. Please know that for one young violin teacher on the east coast *raises hand*, each one of your posts sparks new thoughts and ideas, and spurs me to pursue my own lines of thinking as well. (My boyfriend, who is a Suzuki Guitar teacher, also passes along his greetings; he's a regular reader too.)

    I did Violin Book 1 training with Carrie Reuning-Hummel, and she has a similar viewpoint - except she swapped the word you use, "perfection", with the word "excellence".

    It seems that parents frequently want the results of the "muscle-work" that comes with striving for perfection/excellence, but without actually doing the muscle-work. Families take on too many activities in trying to have the perfect well-rounded kids, the perfect appearance of community involvement, etc... A smarter move, in my view, would be to focus on fewer things and increase the quality of one's work and relationships.

    I read a book called "The Price of Privilege" by Madeline Levine that addresses our society's avoidance of working our excellence muscles, while simultaneously expecting the image of perfection. It might be a nice read for you, as it puts many labels on the things that we encounter as teachers working with families. I surely appreciated it.

    Anyhow, thank you for all that you do... I'll keep reading (and get up the guts to comment more)!

    -- Kate

    1. I just loved reading your comment! (and hi to your boyfriend!). I appreciate your thoughts, and I am going to track down that book! Sounds like just the thing I want to read.

      We really strived for perfection when we worked on our Carnegie Hall performance. We practiced and performed our program so many times in advance of the big night. As our violist Bruce frequently remarked after the Carnegie performance, "we will return home as changed people." He is so right. When one works as hard as we did, we do change. Striving for perfection will always accomplish this sort of change. For the better!

      Keep in touch. Keep writing. I love how everyone's comments spark new ideas for me. Please speak up (raise that hand!) and send some new ideas my way. What do we want to discuss next?