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Saturday, May 2, 2015

Should Teachers and Parents Succumb to Perfectionism?

In my daily reflections, I have noticed a recurrent topic: perfectionism. Since this idea has come to me so many times this week, I have begun to abbreviate it with a P to save myself time writing. As I think about how this pernicious idea invades and taints my work and creativity, I have come up with some thoughts to share.

Perfectionism is most likely part of all of us. We all have a history somewhere, somehow of how we have disappointed someone or not lived up to someone else’s expectations: a parent, spouse, friend, mentor, or a teacher. Our history influences our present picture of ourselves and our work and creative product. The real issue though may boil down to how much we decide to allow our history to influence our work today as teachers, students, and parents. Is perfectionism a bad thing? Do we need some of it in our lives?

Perfectionism is the refusal to allow anything short of perfection. That statement alone should alert us that something is quite wrong with perfectionism. Does anyone know of anything that is perfect? Of course we have all experienced the perfect moment, such as a sunrise, a flower, a child’s laugh. To have that perfect moment not repeat itself consistently though is to admit that “perfect” is unattainable. To be devotees of perfectionism means that we refuse to accept something if it is not perfect, which in my view means that we cannot accept something if it cannot be repeated or sustained indefinitely. We know that my view is not realistic.

So how does this affect us as teachers, students, or parents?

“Perfectionism is a refusal to let yourself move ahead. It is a loop – an obsession, debilitating closed system that causes you to get stuck in the details of what you are [creating] and to lose sight of the whole. Instead of creating freely and allowing errors to reveal themselves later as insights, we often get mired in getting the details right. We correct our originality into a uniformity that lacks passion and spontaneity. ‘Do not fear mistakes,’ Miles Davis told us. ‘There are none.’” – Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way Every Day, May 2.

So here is an oppositional list, which is one of my favorite ways to approach a subject. I list traits or characteristics on the left side; this is a list of the things that I will want to eliminate. Then I look at my left list and begin transmuting each thought or item into a positive on the right side. These transformed thoughts will possibly become my newest mantra or affirmation.

Eyes of fear
Eyes of courage
Unrealistic expectations
Deal with reality and what is
Unrealistic views of ourselves
Let our weaknesses go
Unrealistic views of our past
Let the past go
Staying stuck
Moving ahead
Being flexible
Focus on details
Focus on big picture, sweeping grand ideas
Paralyzed, constricted
Free, moving, flowing
Passionate, spontaneous

As we prepare for our upcoming studio spring recital, we practice performing for each other in group classes. After each child performs, we ask the other students to offer positive comments about the performance, and the performer then learns to say thank you. This is another ability or skill that students must learn. Later at a more advanced level, I will teach the performing students to do some helpful analysis before opening up to comments from others, such as: "What worked for me during the performance?" and "What will I do differently next time?"

What I noticed in the group class is that one of the moms (who also participates in the group class as a student) was very generous and kind in her comments to students. However, when the performing student was one of the mother’s own children, she had a very difficult time restraining herself from offering corrections during the child’s performance and in offering any sort of positive comment afterwards. This behavior is not new to me. I often see it and am reminded of Dr. Suzuki’s comments:

“I often tell parents that they are much too demanding towards their own children. The facial expressions of a mother are greatly different when dealing with someone else’s child.” – Shinichi Suzuki, Ability Development from Age Zero, p. 36

I have also found this to be the case, and I sometimes ask parents to work with other parents’ children in order to avoid this issue. At the root of this behavior I believe is perfectionism. The parent desires that the child play perfectly, and that may be because the parent is reflecting the parent’s needs to appear perfect onto the child’s behavior and performance.

As teachers, we often do the same thing with our students. How many of us have participated in local Suzuki association institutes or graduation recitals and found ourselves cringing or making facial gestures as we react to our students’ mistakes or missteps? I have to guard against this during lessons too. I have to remind myself that I have a higher purpose here, and that a student’s lesson or performance is not “about me.”

This is not an easy thing to face, but I am determined to keep myself aware of it and to be watchful about my own behaviors and attitudes. I want to be a good teacher, not an unrealistic one. I want my student to grow up healthy and not have my teaching experience with them become a burden to overcome as an adult.

I hope that I am not the only teacher, student, or parent who faces these troublesome issues. As I explore my own thoughts and behaviors, I welcome any suggestions, explanations, or techniques that others can suggest.

I want to keep my focus on the sweeping large ideas and not get lost in the trivial details. Who is with me?


  1. This is very good advice. My son is currently preparing for a strings concert. He's practicing a piece, but it will not be anywhere near perfect in terms of being all in tune or rhythm in time for the concert. In your opinion, how "perfect" should the piece be before it is deemed performable? Realistically, how "perfect" can a piece get after only playing 18 months?

    1. This is a very good question, and I think everyone would give different answers. For me, it all depends on the student and whether I think I can get more from him or her. For example, if my student is going through one of those growth spurts that affect the brain's ability to remember things (like around ages 9 and 13), then my expectations might be lower. For me, it matters that the student plays all the correct notes and bowing. Those are always my first two steps. As for the tone quality or how nice it sounds, this seems to be one of the longest learning curves for students, so I am a lot more accepting and gracious. I find it works best if I do not allow the book graduation recital to be set until the child is able to play what I am asking for: correct notes and bowing. And memorized. For studio recitals, I begin working during the semester of the recital. We identify the recital piece, and it must be memorized at least by 1 month before the recital. On very rare occasions will I permit a student to play from music, and only in very special circumstances (child is/was ill, there is a learning disability issue that does not allow memorization). Hope this helps. I do recognize that there are many teachers out there who are absolute sticklers for perfection, but I have found this topic to be a little sticky for me. More of a balancing issue for me.