Friday, July 22, 2011

Magical Moment 531, "Practice Doesn't Make Perfect"

When I was a little girl, there was a piano competition that I practiced diligently for every spring. It was the Fine Arts Competition, and my small Christian school hosted several other schools who came to participate in the event. I competed every year from 3rd through 8th grade. I prepared months in advance and was so nervous when it was finally time to perform. The goal for me was perfection. And with the judges watching, if ever I hit a sour note, I knew that it was over. I wouldn't place. My world would crash and I would be distraught for the next week (in fact I'm still a little bitter about the episode of '97!).

Part of this, is the nature of competition. But I think much of it had to do with something I concocted in my own brain somehow. This idea of 'perfection equals success and anything less is total failure' stayed with me for many years. Even when I sang or played a song for a church service, a safe and accepting environment, I would become so stressed out at the possibility of making a mistake, that it usually became a self-fulfilling prophecy. My nerves would get the better of me and keep me from doing my best. Then afterwards, I would focus on what a bad job I did. I couldn't even bear to hear the encouragement from others that the song was a blessing to them, because I could only recall what I did wrong. And while this did have some advantages (I practiced a lot), mostly it just made me feel unnecessary pressure to reach an impossible standard, and then become crushed when inevitably I couldn't fulfill that standard.

I knew since high school, that this mind game was sabotaging me, yet I couldn't get past it. For the life of me, I couldn't make it through a choir audition without hyperventilating. "Thanks for your audition Elizabeth, but if you can't calm down enough to breath, how do you expect to get sound out of your vocal chords?" When I auditioned, and luckily made it into the Soldier Show, the director told me, "I'm so glad I get to keep you, but you were so nervous during your audition, your eyelashes were shaking!" In fact, it hasn't been until very recently that I've come to terms with making mistakes. I'm using piano as an example here, but it really extends to many other aspects of my life. 

In ballet, the piano accompanist must keep the tempo consistent, and they must keep the musical phrases in sections of 8 counts. The other day, I had a total mind blank. I hit all kinds of chords that would make you cringe. But I kept playing. And though I missed all the right notes, I never missed a beat. I think that's the key. Just keep going. Don't quit when you discover you can't be perfect. The dancers kept dancing, because I just kept on playing.

"Striving for excellence motivates you; striving for perfection is demoralizing."  
-Harriet Braiker

"Use what talents you possess; the woods would be very silent if no birds sang except those that sang best."  
-Henry van Dyke


Linda said...

Thanks for being open enough to share your struggles with us. Most of us can relate. And those two quotations that you included are "perfect." :)

Unknown Mami said...

Perfection is over-rated. You have to just keep going.

Dawn said...

You SAID it!!!!
That's the "key" ;).... to it all isn't?

Thanks for your stories....makes me feel a bit better when I come in to certain similar situations.
Boy it can be so hard to be human....

Busy Bee Suz said...

You are right about the 'just keep going' is what you have to do. :)
I also think perfection is most things.

On a side note: The pianist who played at our wedding messed up so many was almost comical. She was not even close to a perfectionist. :) But our day was perfect nonetheless.

ds said...

I know someone who would benefit from a little less emphasis on perfection (all her own doing, of course--and no, it ain't me). Love the quote about the birds...

Thank you for sharing this, Elizabeth. It takes courage to acknowledge our fears. You did the exact right thing the other day. Just keep playing...