How Perfectionism was Shaped

I was playing the piano this evening, and I played a game with myself – to play through the entire piece three times without one mistake. If I made a mistake, I would have to start over from 0 again. Very quickly, I found that it would take me days of practicing to achieve that, so I dropped my standards to playing flawlessly just once. When I couldn’t do that either, I slowed down my speed and was hyperfocused. It took me at least 6 tries (the piece is long so it took me almost half an hour) to get it perfect, and I even let myself go with a few slipping, unsolid notes.

My middle school piano teacher taught me this game. I remember that many times when we had class, I would make over two mistakes in a simple piece, and he’d tell me to repetitively play again. He would not scold me but be very calm and stern as he cut me off in the middle and start over again. Something in his tone and in his way of saying “start from the beginning” made me cry almost all the time in class. I was very frustrated and wanted to give up after 4 times of his same monotone response. He said that music is art and art should be perfect. Playing the correct note at the right time is the lowest standard and the first step of dealing with a piece. Style and musical expression come after. He said that a pianist’s entire career is ruined if he/she made one single mistake in a concert. He told stories of himself playing 16 hours a day (40 minutes practice, 20 minutes rest) for weeks, playing the same measure for that day if an error was made there. My piano skills improved quickly under his teaching, and I cried less and less as I stopped making as many mistakes.

I don’t think I’ll ever match the extent of his persistence though I long for that level of perfection. I wonder why my teacher’s rigidity does not take away the joy of playing music. I played tons of mistakes in my recital last year and my life is not ruined, maybe because I am not a professional pianist. So when I was trying to practice a tenth of what my teacher endured this afternoon, it made me think that maybe I do not need to apply what I’m trying to do with music to all areas of my life. I feel bad for finding excuses for my lack of piano practice, but it IS impossible for me to make music perfect, especially with my careless personality and clumsy fingers. I’ll just keep piano as a hobby. I need to feel comfortable saying: there is room to make mistakes.


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