December/January 2020

by Caitlin Smith

Finding Your Voice: The Pitbulls of Perfectionism

by Caitlin Smith

Finding Your Voice: The Pitbulls of Perfectionism

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.

The Problem is Perfectionists…

  • Don’t allow themselves to make mistakes and thereby learn from them.
  • Avoid ‘new’ (therefore unknown and supposedly untested and untrustworthy) techniques.
  • See themselves as exceptional – viewing time-honoured, millennia-old singing techniques as inapplicable to their bodies.
  • Have black or white thinking, either ‘getting it, or not’. No room for, ‘being bad before you get good’. No, “I’ll just make a dick of myself, who cares?”
  • Decide success based on their own unrealistic assessment criteria. It’s their way, or no way.
  • Tend to be over-reliant on reading lyrics/chords.
  • Tend towards masochism – withstanding pain and suffering in the name of getting it right.
  • Lie, deny, hide flaws, failures and difficulties.
  • Give up, if at first it doesn’t work.
  • Personalise everything rather than seeing voice as a technical exercise where the tools are more powerful than the practitioner.
  • Need to keep control at all costs, even if that control hurts them and produces an unpleasant sound.
  • Mistrust external feedback and overvalue misleading internal feedback.
  • Have a warped self-image, only hearing their flaws. Similarly, all I used to see in old photos was my pot-belly. Now I’m larger and older, those shots just look adorable!
  • Are over-critical.
  • Force and demand too much of their voice to achieve pre-conceived outcomes.
  • Tend towards fear and anxiety.


  • Begin before you think you’re ready, able, prepared, good enough.
  • Start small – no setting yourself up for failure by expecting too much.
  • Timed practice – make practice specifically ‘targeted’ and short – focusing on one technique at a time.
  • Don’t judge or listen critically. Listen/feel for the effects of good technique.
  • Practice doing something counterintuitive with the same diligence you’d use doing it ‘your way’.
  • Surrender – allow your body and ‘Technique Almighty’ to take charge.
  • Reflect and assess looking for different traits/outcomes other than ‘perfect’ i.e. ‘How good did that feel?’
  • Get into your body! Feel rather than just cognitively assess.
  • Expand your comfort zone. Learn to embrace/accept not having tangible parameters/outcomes.
  • Remove ideas of good/bad, right/wrong, better/worse.
  • Get used to the idea that things can be easeful and miraculous.
  • Abandon the past! Stop comparing; to how it was, or with others.
  • Seek connection rather than perfection.
  • Love the song – love your voice.

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.