One of THE most debilitating mindsets, that destroys all enjoyment and ease, is perfectionism. Sure, it’s great to work hard, be diligent, discerning and conscientious, but when perfectionism takes hold, you’re goneburger.
There are NO benefits of perfectionism in relation to voice. Standards are too high or unachievable, successes are never wholeheartedly celebrated and nothing is EVER good enough. The amount of tension and stress it creates within an instrument that require openness and optimism, further compound matters.
Singing isn’t about being perfect. It’s messy, funky, expressive, characterful, emotional, playful, deep, profound and joyously imperfect. I worry when students claim they’re perfectionists like it’s some badge of honour or an indicator of greatness. It is not. It is a potentially fatal and immensely destructive pathology.
For every Kurt Elling, there’s a Sarah Vaughan. For every Beyoncé, there’s an Otis Redding. Jazz ‘scat’ singing is about constantly trying the new and unrehearsed. The exact opposite of the classical ‘play only what is written’ model. It may initially seem scary, but we learn to trust and surrender; allowing ourselves to fall back into the highly supportive, Posturepedic mattress of music. It is more powerful than we are… embrace that.
‘Practice makes perfect’ is a misnomer here. Practice is fun and makes singing easeful, pleasurable and more precise. If perfection is the motivator or intention, practice may well become frustrating, toxic and even painful. Unfortunately, we’re immersed in a culture that endorses the idea of stressing for success, being ‘the best’, and rewarding those with a perfectionist drive. Of course, a striver who stays up all night to make a presentation ‘perfect’ is better for the books (and makes everyone else look lazy).
Studies reveal a massive increase in expectations of perfection, especially in younger generations. Why? Social media plays a part, and so does technology. Think of how much photoshopping, gratuitous use of make-up, unhealthy undereating and over-exercising are presented to us through the media lens as ideals of beauty. With this altered/augmented-reality, ‘doctored’ becomes the norm and natural is seen as un-natural.
The same is true for singing. So much can and is done to the voice in post-production (or during performance, using autotune or lip-synching live) to fix or avoid mistakes. I thought Miles Davis said there weren’t any mistakes, just poor choices…? A computer cannot hear what the human ear can in listening and feeling, making it dangerous to rely on software as diagnostic tools or teachers.
Perfectionism doesn’t celebrate authenticity or diversity. Things might be ‘perfect’, but to my mind that just spells bland, boring, unadventurous, risk-averse, generic, samey and soul-less. You might be able to match your idol note for note, inflection for inflection – but wouldn’t you rather be the person being imitated? Wouldn’t you rather create something new and truly original?
As we age perfectionism has diminishing returns. What once got the job done, received praise and produced great test results turns into procrastination, damaging self-talk and resistance. The voice that asks, “Why bother if it’s never good enough?” paralyses rather than activates. Perfectionists say, “I can’t”, far more than good-natured goofball beginners.
Perfectionism in relation to learning can mean we’re unable to let go of a previous means of control (even if it’s detrimental) for fear we’ll get the new technique ‘wrong’. This need to have control makes the perfectionist suspicious of any techniques differing from mechanisms they’ve devised or habitually used. For instance, singing from the throat might seem the most ‘logical’ way to control sound, however (along with breathiness) it’s part of the axis of eeeeeeevil. Experimenting and mucking around with forward placement, open-ness and twang just seems too scary, ineffective, unsafe – embarrassing even.
Remember: We ‘play’ music, not work it. Kids play and we let ‘em. Same with praying. Mavis Staples sings in Are You Sure?, “You may not know how to pray / but he loves you when you try.” Amene to that.