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Perfectionism for Musicians

Something that a lot of musicians and artists often deal with is perfectionism. I know this first hand because it's something that I have to fight everyday. Perfectionism is debilitating in the fact that it can stop you from doing the thing that you love the most. It causes stress and undue friction within your own life. And, can actually cause the opposite effect of it's 'purpose' in the first place. While there is a place for high artistic standards, when your standards become so high that nobody can live up to them, how are you supposed to create your art?


Getting Support 

There can be many underlying causes for perfectionism; we're not going to get into them here. We're only going to look at the problems and some solutions. One thing that is important to mention is support. If you're perfectionism is getting in the way of you actually getting anything done, one of the best things you can do is find some support. Support for perfectionists can come in two forms. One is psychological support either from a professional or a close friend. This doesn't necessarily have to be a formal thing, just having someone to talk to about this is usually enough to help people get out of the rut. The other type of support is artistic support. Musicians and artists need a community. Artists have always sought out other artists for support and comradery. This serves not only as a support and friendship but also artistic support. Other artists know what the artistic process is all about. They can also be helpful with ideas and usually a sense of healthy competition helps in getting a 'fire in your belly'.

Just Start

One of the best ways to get anything done is to just start. Perfectionists, as a rule over-think things and try to find the best time to do something. The best time to do something is 'right now'. For a lot of perfectionists, the start is usually the hardest part; the second being finishing and letting the project go. There are two things that usually stop perfectionists from starting and they both have to do with over-thinking. Either they over-think the entire project; seeing all of the steps that need to be taken, seeing all of the problems that can arise, and see all or the limitations of their inability to get the job done to their satisfaction. Or, they over-think their initial ideas; negating any thoughts as not right before working through the ideas. This pretty much kills the project from the get go. Over-thinking the beginning is usually enough to stop them from getting on the project. Of course the best solution is to just start but there is more to it than this. There must be some alteration in the mental process before the start. That means either shutting off all of the internal chatter, or changing the internal chatter.

One of the best ways to just get started is to set apart a short amount of time and just let ideas flow. Try half an hour to start and don't kill any ideas, just let them flow. You might want to try the Pomodoro technique. Have a set time everyday where you work on your art. This way at least something gets done everyday. You'll be surprised how often great ideas creep in when 'you didn't feel creative' in the first place. Also, always have deadlines for your projects. They don't have to be written in stone, but at least it gives you some kind of timeline.

Let It Go Already

The other biggest problem perfectionists have is actually finishing the project. While this may be a universal problem, perfectionists take it to a whole new level. Perfectionists have unrealistic expectations. They envision the perfect ending (and results), and nothing else will suffice. There are a couple of problems with this thinking. First off is rarely do things (especially in art) live up to the expectations we put on them in our own minds. There has to be some give with this. This will always be an issue and with every project you're going to have to decide a) when it's done b) if it's done c) if it's never going be done. Some projects don't turn out like we want and at some point we have to be honest, let it go, shelf it and look at it as learning experience. In short, you're going to have to decide if it's good enough to put your name on it and put it out there. Second, artists sometimes lose their objectivity. After working on a project for an extended period of time, you start to lose your ability to effectively evaluate your art. It's important to be able to take a step back and take a second look; usually after you've taken some time away and your mind is clear. Sometimes artists lose all perspective. This is where the community and support comes in. In this way, you can feel free to create your art, and when you're unsure, or just need some feedback, you can seek some outside input. Try and find objective, knowledgeable support. In this instance, family and friends usually don't cut it. You need to find a knowledgeable source that will be honest with you.

Kill the Editor

I've written about this before. One thing that may kill your creativity is being too closed or waiting for the perfect idea from the get go. Some people have no filter and some aren't as hard on themselves as perfectionists. The problem with waiting for the perfect idea is twofold. First of all, sometimes ideas have to be worked through before the gem shows itself. It's a matter of taking an idea in it's raw form and working it into something memorable. The other problem with waiting for the perfect idea is that our internal editor isn't always spot on as far as making creative decisions. Sometimes you have to try some ideas and then leave them for a while. Let the ideas perculate and come back when your mind and ears are fresh. It always amazes me how different some ideas sound the day after. Sometimes I'll write something and think it's the most incredible idea I've ever come up with only to be completely disappointed on the day after. On the other side, sometimes I'll just get something down and not think much of it only to be completely surprised on my second listening.

Great Expectations

Of course the definition of a perfectionist is someone who has impossibly high standards. Working through ideas and trying to create something extraordinary is one thing; never being happy with anything that you create is another. Some artists and writers go through their entire life not happy with their creations. You might be thinking that having high standards is what makes your music great and separates you from the rest. If this keeps you focused and motivated, then it works for you. If you create many pieces but never finish. If you finish projects but then hide them away. If you make excuses that 'you aren't quite ready' and need to finish one more project before putting your stuff out there, then there is an issue here.

Not An Excuse

Before you think that letting perfectionism go is an excuse to be mediocre, you're wrong. This is all about getting things done but also getting it right. This is for the people who have been working on the same three songs for a couple of years; or, the one song that never gets done. This is for people who don't try things or flip flop from one project to the next because they never live up to expectations. One thing about great artists is that they never accept anything but the very best from themselves and their art. There comes a time when you have to let it go. You have to work through the problems, take a step back, decide if it's a good representation of what you set out to do, and then move on. It's important to start, work through, finish and move on. If you miss one of these steps, your art will never see the light of day.

Working Through It

Having high standards for your art if great. Having completely unrealistic expectations may be stopping you from creating your best work. It may be something you have to work through often; most artists do. But there has to be a time where you just get to work. try not to over think things or look for the perfect results. It's important to just enjoy the process and let the editor in later. Do the absolute best you can do right now, evaluate, and then let it go. You may come back one day realize that in spite of it all, you've created something great.