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Perfectionism Kills Progress!

Updated: Jan 13




“Perfect: adjective (WITHOUT FAULT) complete and correct in every way, of the best possible type or without fault.” Cambridge Dictionary

By definition, the term perfect in itself leaves no room for progress, it describes the imagined end result after which no progress is possible anymore. The strive for perfection focuses on the end result, ignoring the process. For many years, I got into the trap of attempting to give the perfect lesson, the perfect recital, I was pushing my students to play their pieces “perfectly!”, my own chase after perfection, gave me great anxiety, stress, self-defeat, and self-doubt and caused paralysis in my decision making and my progress as a teacher and even in the overall progress of my students.



Perfectionism goes both ways, it can be self or other-oriented. As a perfectionist teacher, it took me a very long time to feel adequate or to feel that I have the needed skills to take on students with disabilities, for the fear of not being able to do a good job and therefore missing on an opportunity to inspire students, to grow as a teacher and get beyond my comfort zone. It is not less paralyzing to be an other-oriented perfectionist, waiting for the perfect day, perfect student, perfect opportunity. Not moving on and, waiting for the students to play their lessons perfectly well and so on.

Only when I gave up on the idea of having a perfect lesson or having my student play their piece perfectly, or having a perfect day I began to witness real progress. Only when I started to simply want to have students who are today a tiny bit better than they were yesterday if they are able to play their pieces only a bit better than the last time they did or simply if my student was able to find the middle C for the first time. This might not be perfect, but on the contrary, this is even better than perfect, it is progress. Perfect means that we reached our goal, there is nothing more to aim towards anymore. Progress means the road is still open, and there is the promise to become even better.

After I realized this I stopped my chase towards perfection, and I started becoming a good teacher instead. As a musician this was very difficult for me to do, I always remember my teacher telling me that I needed to practice not until I got my piece right, but I needed to practice until I couldn't get it wrong. I interpreted this in my mind as practicing the piece until it became perfect!

I kept telling myself to let go of this notion and move forward. Rejoice and celebrate every progress my student does and move on. Once I moved ahead enough and came back to older lessons and pieces I found out that now they almost sound perfect! Without the stress, the self-doubt, and self-defeat. It magically happened!


I also needed to let go of so many things that I usually insisted on with other students. Students with special needs have the tendency to move around and fidget a lot, they sometimes continuously and nervously press on the pedal, rock, keep playing with the wrong fingers. Only when I accepted these little errors, that I started to see actual progress because I stopped trying to get it all fixed in one lesson. I choose one thing only to work on for a while and focus on that one thing, let go of the other things and move on with my lessons. I continue progressing with the pieces and the book, instead of waiting for perfection I started to measure progress, and celebrate it every single time. With time and with encouragement and to my surprise I started to notice that many of the problems have sorted out themselves gradually without me even realizing it.



Allan, the perfectionist student (Case Study):

A while ago Allan, a 7-year-old boy walked into my studio with his mother. His mother brought him to me after his previous teacher stopped teaching him because he was on the autism spectrum and wasn’t improving. It didn’t take long to notice that Allan had perfect pitch and was a perfectionist at the same time! A very challenging situation, one of the most challenging in fact. Whatever the lesson was, Allan wanted to make it sound perfect!


In the beginning, I thought that was absolutely great until things started to drift in an undesirable direction. When Allan progressed enough and started reading music, he became really happy and excited to learn new pieces from his method book, and he progressed really fast. However, as the pieces started to become a little more challenging Allan started to exhibit a certain pattern of behavior:


Once he started playing a piece, whether a new piece or an old one from a previous lesson; he would get angry at himself whenever he made the slightest mistake, grunt, and start from the beginning. At first, it would take 3 to 4 tries until he managed to get it right, which didn’t seem so bad - big mistake! As time went by, and as Allan progressed and his pieces started to become longer and harder and he couldn’t play a piece correctly within 3 tries, that’s when he started to become more and more frustrated, until on one occasion we had a major meltdown…


The following strategy helped me get back on track and got him to enjoy his lessons once again:


At the beginning of the lesson, I reviewed my rules and expectations. At the beginning of the lesson, when Allan was still calm, I reminded him of the rules and explained the consequences of certain behaviors, such as banging the piano or throwing a tantrum. I always said it in a positive and kind way without sounding threatening or aggressive.


Examples:

  • I have to be calm in order to learn.

  • I need to sit tall on the bench. If I am not playing, I keep my hands in my lap.

  • I do not bang the piano while my teacher is explaining the lesson.

  • It’s okay to make a mistake, I can take a deep breath and try again.

  • If I am upset, I will say that I am upset and I can ask for a break and sit away from the piano for a while.

  • It is okay if I can’t play the piece without mistakes, I can move on and play something different…..

Before I started every lesson I told Allan about what was going to happen in the lesson and what activities we would be working on.


Children with autism thrive on routine and they love to know what to expect. A clear schedule immensely reduced the chance of behavioral problems. If I needed to change anything during the lesson, I made sure to explain this first and say why this was going to happen. I always tried as much as possible to keep the lessons predictable.

After finishing a single task, I marked it with a smiley, sticker, or stamp as a reward on the printed-out and laminated lesson plan. This helped Allan keep track of what was going on and gave him a sense of achievement at the same time.

I always positively reinforced good behavior and I started seeing more of it. I made sure to praise him if we managed to finish all tasks and reward him by playing a song while he joined with a percussion instrument.

I helped Allan verbalize his feelings in an appropriate way, and had him calm down before continuing the task. If after doing all of the above I still noticed signs of misbehavior that is how I took care of it:

I stopped the lesson and explained that the behavior wasn’t appropriate and against the piano lesson rules. I asked Allan to verbalize how he feels.

Example: He played the wrong note and had an unpleasant or exaggerated reaction. I helped him find appropriate words to express his frustration in his own way. " you can say: 'Oh no I messed up!' or, ‘I feel frustrated!' ...”


Many times, simply being able to get words like this out was enough to immediately calm Allan down. Many children on the spectrum struggle to express themselves verbally, which can lead to emotional overreactions.



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