Passion or Perfection?

Not good enough went the incessant mantra in my head. Its constant chant had followed me all throughout high school like a poisonous whisper, but today it was screaming. I stared at the vomit green carpet and fought back the tears that threatened to flood from my eyes. I didn’t want to cry. I didn’t want to admit that I was the worst player at this music festival. The perfectionism that had so long consumed me whispered another phrase, give up. You don’t belong here.

I was always afraid of not being good enough. As the youngest with three talented older siblings, I grew up feeling as if I had something to prove. I worked hard and attempted to be the best at everything in order to be equal to my siblings. I started to be praised for my achievements, especially in music, but soon my failures were met with “you should’ve tried harder” or “you should’ve practiced more”. Failure became my adversary, a dreaded entity that spoke not only to my incompetence, but also to my value as a person. When I reached high school, these ideas were only multiplied by the competition-minded classical world. While the intense desire to be perfect pushed me and motivated me to work harder, it created in me self-hatred and a warped view of music. Music became about competition and perfection; mistakes were not to be tolerated. I started to become so afraid of making a mistake even while practicing, that I would stuff towels under the door to dampen the sound just in case someone would hear it. Performing was a nightmare. My legs shook, my hands would sweat and my bow would bounce uncontrollably. I wanted to be perfect, but the fear of failure caused me to commit even more mistakes. Each failure would make me increasingly convinced of my inadequacy and music felt like a burden instead of a gift.

It all culminated to this moment, at the music festival. It was two months before early auditions were to start for college and I was already prepared. I had it all laid out—the lists of my top universities, the pros and cons written beside each one and all the requirements for them neatly printed out—but I had never once stopped to ask myself if music was even something I wanted to do anymore.

  I took a breath and looked around. Here, in this hotel with the green carpet and generic tan walls, something was shifting inside of me; I could feel it. It was one of those “make it or break it” moments when either I would succumb to this corrupting voice in my head, or I would find a way to overcome it. And so I turned on Bach’s Partita No. 2 for Solo Violin and gave into my tears. As I cried, I kept wondering, when did music turn into this? When did perfection become so much more important to me than passion? And then the most important question popped into my head, why do I even want to be a musician? As I contemplated that thought, the dulcet tones of Bach ringing in my ears, I realized that I had been getting it wrong for so long. Music had become all about me and how it proved my value and my talent, or conversely, my worthlessness and my ineptitude. What a pitiful view of music I had acquired!

Music has existed before me and will exist long after me. It has been the victorious cry of empires and the tender lullaby sung to children. It has brought hope in the dark and raptures to the soul. So what if it’s not perfect?

And there it was—the cure.

In that moment, I defeated the perfectionistic voice in my head that had forever haunted me. It was as simple as saying so what? I have loftier goals than perfection. My goal, my duty as a musician is not to play flawlessly. Such banality gains nothing and leaves listeners bored and unchanged. Music is meant to evoke emotion, to leave an audience altered in their soul. I must only convey that emotion as best I can to awaken the audience’s passion. Any technical mistakes made while pursuing that goal do not signify failure, only apathy does. Technical excellence will come if the passion never abates.

My perfectionism was vanquished simply by shifting the focus off of myself and concentrating on how I could impact others. I still get nervous before performances and I still struggle with disappointment after a performance filled with my own human errors, but I can release those thoughts so much more easily now with the knowledge that I played passionately. Every time I pick up my instrument, whether that is in the practice room, or at a performance, I remind myself that it isn’t just for me. I practice my music so that it might one day touch someone else and hopefully leave them changed for the better.