Can perfectionism be a good thing for a music teacher?

This blog post about music teacher perfectionism was written by Carmen Carpenter. Carmen has taught music in a school setting as well as in her home studio for 30 years. Teaching combines two of her favourite things: music and kids! Besides teaching music, Carmen loves spending time with family playing games, working puzzles, and watching movies. She is also an avid reader and loves taking long walks on her local, woodsy trails.

Perfectionism often gets a bad rap. And, generally speaking, perfectionism deserves its bad reputation. It is anxiety-inducing, and can be crippling for the very best of teachers and piano students. But when is perfectionism good?

I’m not what most people would consider a perfectionist. Generally speaking, I’m not picky about my clothes or makeup or the way my office looks. (This “good enough” attitude is quite helpful when dealing with my curly hair. 🤪)    

As a teacher, I certainly seek to be my very best for my students. I make lesson plans every week for every lesson. And when the plan isn’t followed to a tee, I’m cool with that.

I generally strive for excellence in how my students play and perform…but if they get close enough to playing the right notes and rhythms, and I hear some semblance of dynamic contrast, that’s usually just fine with me. 

However, when my students perform for recitals or festivals, I realise that… 

When “Good Enough” Really Isn’t 

As many of them play their pieces, I wonder if I should have been a little (OK, a lot!) pickier. I start to question the wisdom of my high tolerance for mediocre playing. 

That gets me thinking…

  • Does my laissez-faire approach mean my students aren’t reaching their full potential?  
  • Is it possible to push for greater mastery without being pushy?
  • Can I be picky without being nit-picky?
  • Is there anything a well-meaning teacher like myself can learn from the perfectionists in the world?

What can non-perfectionists learn from perfectionists?

We can certainly learn what NOT to do from perfectionists. But, perhaps surprisingly, we can learn quite a few positive things from perfectionists, too.

There are definitely some upsides to the strive for flawless playing which can guide us.

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The Sunny Side of Piano Teacher Perfectionism

I know that sounds like an oxymoron.

There are, however, aspects of music teacher perfectionism which we non-perfectionists can use to help our students achieve their potential.

Lofty Goals & High Standards

If we help our students set high goals and then diligently work with them to attain those goals, they’re much more likely to reach their full potential.

There’s an old truism which says, “If you aim at nothing, you’ll hit it every time.”  (Zig Ziglar is generally believed the originator of this quote.) We non-perfectionists would do well to remember this wise advice. 

I have to admit that sometimes I don’t even have a goal or expectation for how my students will play or perform. I certainly expect the right notes and rhythms…but when that’s my only standard, that’s usually all I get. You can forget about technical proficiency and expression. 😕

Facing Forwards

The perfectionist is rarely happy with just one success. And when they’re pleased with an achievement, the delight is fleeting.

Even though this may sound gloomy, you can also think of this mindset as a way of looking forward to greater accomplishment rather than riding the coattails of previous triumphs.

Obsession With One Thing

Yes, I know this one also sounds bad.😏  

But what if we turned that laser focus into something constructive? This drive to be flawless could be an opportunity for deliberate practice, focussing on one area in order to improve and grow. 

Maybe your student needs to hone in on note reading or legato technique. Obsessing over that missing skill – for just a little while – could be just the ticket to attaining mastery in that area.

The Downsides of Perfectionism

Many of us probably use the downsides of music teacher perfectionism as guiding principles already. (That’s why we’re non-perfectionists in the first place, right?)  But there are a few negative aspects which I think seem particularly important to deal with head-on.

Zero Tolerance

The perfectionist has very little room for grace when it comes to mistakes. This is especially difficult to cope with as the learning process is fraught with errors and trials.

Help your students have a more positive view of challenges by encouraging them to use mistakes as tools for learning.

Unicorn Horncraft, an exclusive game created by Vibrant Music Teaching, is a great way to help students embrace mistakes. Enter your info below and we’ll send you the game for free!

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Defeatist Self-Reliance

When a perfectionist comes across something they can’t figure out on their own, they feel defeated and inadequate. Rather than viewing this attitude as yet another obstacle to overcome, make it your goal to help your student become a fully-independent learner.

As a piano teacher, I’m always trying to “work myself out of a job”. In other words, I want to equip my students with all the skills they’ll need to play anything they want (without my help) for the rest of their lives.

If we can give our students the gift of independent learning, we just might be able to stop at least one negative feature of music teacher perfectionism in its tracks.

All or Nothing

A nit-picky teacher or pianist typically feels that to make beautiful music, they have to have all the things, all the time, all at once. As lovely as that may sound, it’s next to impossible to achieve

And what is the point of playing beautiful music?  

According to Joanna Shiel, it’s all about connection. Performing for other people is about moving and affecting their audience, engaging with them and making them feel something. It’s not about playing a piece perfectly, beginning-to-end.

Are you a perfectionist, or a non-perfectionist?

Tell us about it in the comments below.

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