music major blog

How I Learned to Put Paralyzing Perfection Aside and Improve A Little Bit Each Day Instead

Recently, perfectionism and procrastination have come up in one way or another for myself, my colleagues, and my students, and it has encouraged me to take a look at my own patterns and find real solutions to break out perfectionist habits.

What is Perfectionist's Procrastination? 

Have you ever thought about the immense amount of work standing between yourself and your ideal perfect self, and been paralyzed or discouraged from taking any action at all?

Here's what it sounds like for me:

I should really improve A, B, and C, but I'll tackle all that next time when I feel really ready and focused and have lots of time.

I'll wait until I can dedicate a full hour to tone exercises, then I'll finally work on those tapers I need to improve. 

Perfectionist's Procrastination Latches onto ideas like these:

  • Waiting for Ideal Conditions 
  • Waiting for "Enough" Time
  • Waiting to Sound Good
  • Waiting for More Energy

Ultimately, my mind creates an unrealistic to-do list in an effort to fix everything all at once, and when I think about the amount of work ahead of me, I tell myself: next time, next time, next time.


Perfectionist's Procrastination can be deeply rooted in fearing failure and mistakes.

For example, a more honest inner dialogue to the above example might sound more like this:

I could work on my tapers today, but I don't know what I'm doing. I know I'm bad at it, and I don't want to face my weakness.

In addition, the fear of not doing enough leads to fear of not being enough. And that's paralyzing.


Perfection-Oriented vs. Process-Oriented

For at least the past eight years, I've been organizing my practice sessions in the order of tone first, technique second, and repertoire after that, and attempting to do at least an hour of each thing.

However, I often spend most of my energy and focus on the initial stage, losing motivation before I've given the next stages any attention. 

Why do I keep falling into this rut so often? 

  • Perfection in the Practice Room

Perfection wants to finish everything immediately and achieve perfection now. Our faults can give us tunnel vision, and we can throw all our energy into one task, like tone work. While we're giving tone good attention and improving, we can burn out out entire supply of energy and focus, and we have nothing left for anything else.

And musicians need all the skills. Perfection knows this, too, and feels like a failure when giving up before moving on.

Perfection doesn't like to Let Go.

  • Process-Oriented Practice

Process-oriented practice puts in the highly-focused practice that perfection loves, but it comes with permission to let go and move on to the next task.

 

The following two ideas led me to break out of perfectionist mindset and find breakthroughs in process-oriented practice in the past two weeks.


A. "Improve A Little Bit Each Day"

I recently raved about Dr. Terri Sanchez's Epic Flute Warm-Up, which ultimately led me to purchase her book, The Aspiring Flutist's Practice Companion.

In her book, the smallest phrase came up in the Epic Warm-Up 2.0, and it really struck me:

"Improve a little bit each day."

I've consistently been doing her Epic Warm-Up almost every day for three months because it's fun and manageable, only taking 15 minutes total to feel thoroughly warmed-up. And you know what? I've improved a little bit each day in those three months! 

This was a huge lightbulb moment.

B. Set Yourself Up for Success To Prevent Early Practice Burnout

Now that I've given myself permission to improve a little bit each day, I've created room to realistically invite more tasks into my practice session without feeling overwhelmed.

My next goal involves organizing my tasks in a way that ensures I don't burn myself out too soon, as I was consistently doing before.

I came across a video on Facebook by Denise Tryon, Adjunct Horn Professor at the Peabody Conservatory, on practicing. 

Essentially, she separates her day into three separate sessions, practicing in the morning, afternoon, and evening with ample time in between.

Right away, I realized that I could be improving a little bit, three times a day.
Lightbulb moment number two.

Tips for Beating Perfectionist's Procrastination + Improving a Little Bit Each Day:

After re-approaching my practice mindset based on the above ideas, I implemented a few more ideas to really help motivate me towards consistent, well-balanced, process-oriented practice experiences.

1. Get yourself excited for tomorrow's practice session tonight

  • Re-set your practice space: Tidy up and re-organize your materials, placing tomorrow's first to-dos on your stand so you're ready to go! (Or, place your materials in your bag in the order you're going to use them to make it easier on yourself once you arrive at your practice space.)
  • Listen to recordings, watch videos, or read words that inspire you.
  • Write down or e-mail yourself your schedule for tomorrow, which leads to the next tip!

2. Give yourself a completely reasonable to-do list

  • It is way too easy to prescribe yourself an 8-hour practice session, because your perfectionist self would love that, but I've never executed anything I've planned for myself when it's unreasonable and unattainable.
  • Set yourself up for success! If your to-do list allows you to easily complete every task, you'll feel accomplished and begin craving more rather than feeling burnt out.

3. Use a timer (And actually listen to it!)

  • Many times, I've put a timer on while practicing certain exercises, and have continued on long past the buzzer. When this happens, I usually end up feeling frustrated, exhausted, or both.
  • If your inclination to work past the buzzer comes from feeling antsy or incomplete, learn to give yourself a pat on the back for really focusing and putting good work in, and move on! It'll still be there tomorrow. And the next day. If you leave it feeling like there's more to continue on with, that may motivate you to pick back up and put more work in the next day!
  • In addition, you can now channel all that energy into the next practice task!
  • Timer Tips:
    • Try 3-minutes for one-measure chunks within a piece, 5-minutes for shorter exercises, and 10-minutes for longer ones as a starting point.

In Conclusion

  • I've come to realize that I'd rather put in a highly focused 10-minutes-each on six aspects of my playing every day than one hour of work on only one area. 
  • The best way to improve your weaknesses is by working at them daily. Put your timer on and put in the work!
  • Make the most of your minutes, and keep yourself feeling fresh and focused for each aspect of your practice session.
  • You don't need to "finish" everything. You don't need to solve every issue every time you practice. In order to be sustainable, there must be a point at which you let go and move on. If you feel like you're not done, you'll know right where you need to go tomorrow, and you'll still have energy left to focus on the next tasks on your list. 
  • If you find it difficult to move on before achieving perfection or completion, just remember that there is no end to the possibilities of improvement.
http://media.boreme.com/post_media/2013/pablo-casals-cellist.jpg

Here's permission to put perfection aside and enjoy the process!


Finally, I came across this video the other day, and found it particularly fitting in the context of doing a little bit of work each day with a lot of focus and care. A few months later, the results are beautiful

#practiceroomrevelations

Top Picks: Online Video Resources For Musicians

In honor of last week's Inspiration Calendar activity of researching online video resources, I am rounding up some of my favorite videos and channels for flutists and musicians!

Best Channels To Follow For Master Classes:

1. Musaic - Curated by New World Sympyhony, America’s Orchestral Academy 

Also on YouTube!

2. Carnegie Hall Series Master Classes YouTube Channel

Flute Master Class Playlists

3. The Master Class Media Foundation YouTube Channel

Worth-The-Subscription:

Principal Chairs

I highly recommend the subscription to Principal Chairs if you are preparing for an audition or working in depth with excerpts! There are a wealth of quality, in-depth, full-length video masterclasses covering many excerpts. 

On Performance Anxiety

1. How to Stay Focused During Performance: Carnegie Hall Master Class with Emmanuel Pahud

2. Your body language shapes who you are | Amy Cuddy

3. TEDxBloomington -- Jeff Nelsen -- "Fearless Performance"

4. The Healthy Musician: Dealing with Nerves & Performance Anxiety by Annie Bosler

5. Pre-Audition Meditation for Dancers

The Alexander Technique and Constructive Rest

1. Posture awareness with the Alexander Technique by Carolyn Nicholls

2. Alexander Technique Lie Down by Pyeng Voice Coach

Favorite Channels for Flutists

1. Flutings with Paula By Paula Robison

2. Mimi's Flute Tips by Mimi Stillman

3. NinaFlute - Nina Perlove

4. BevaniFlute - Bevani

5. JustAnotherFlutist - JustanotherFlutist

Inspiring Performances

1. Amy Porter: Poem by Griffes

2. Jasmine Choi: Paganini Caprice No. 24

3. Karl-Heinz Schütz: Mendelssohn Concerto

4. Marianne Gedigian: Liebermann Concerto

5. Alain Marion: Boehm Grande Polonaise

 

What are your favorite videos? Check out my YouTube Channel for more playlists!

Customize Your Warm-Up: Two Ways To Get More Out of Exercises

When I first learned about the four-part formula for a practice session (Tone, then Technique, then Etudes, then Repertoire), I committed to it completely. However, I found myself spending a lot of time on tone and technique exercises, often running out of time or energy before making it all the way through repertoire. In addition, my fundamental work was very often exactly the same each day. I implemented the same pretty good ideas over and over again each day, but rarely had a new a-ha moment from them. Does this sound familiar to you?

Here are two ways to freshen up your warm-up and fundamentals and make your warm-ups work for you and your repertoire.

Bring Context To Your Exercises

When you’re doing your exercises, warm-ups, scales, long tones, harmonics, etc., place whatever repertoire you’re working on in front of you. Choose a section and consider the mood, character, type of air stream needed, the articulation patterns, dynamics, phrase lengths and breath marks.

Now, apply some of these musical ideas to your exercises. For example, if you're working on Moyse's De La Sonorite, play what's on the page, but in the style of the opening to the Dutilleux Sonatine. Now try it like Jolivet, C.P.E. Bach, or the Firebird excerpt! Each one feels different, right? Bringing specific musical contexts to your every day exercises will bring a fresh perspective, and ensure that you're thinking musically while observing. The warm-up should prepare you to play, and you're now ensuring that your warm-up is specifically warming you up for the repertoire ahead. Playing a complete exercise in all keys in the specific styles needed for a piece will give you lots of opportunities to refine your set-up, too.

"Bringing specific musical contexts to your every day exercises will bring a fresh perspective, and ensure that you're thinking musically while observing."

FIND EXERCISES WITHIN REPERTOIRE

Okay, now let's try the opposite. Put the actual notes from your repertoire into your exercise. This can be very simple, such as choosing several notable intervals to sneak into your De La Sonorite. Or, add the broken chords from Mozart's G Major Concerto into your arpeggio exercises in Moyse's Gammes et Arpèges or Taffanel and Gaubert exercises. You can even take a note from Robert Dick's Tone Development Through Extended Techniques, and turn a Bach Sonata into a Throat Tuning exercise.

Altering repertoire to learn and improve is something that you're probably already doing! The difference, however, is that now we are borrowing the notes and applying them specifically to familiar exercises.

Here's My Breakthrough:

During a recent warm-up on long tones, I found myself working towards a set-up that was conducive to playing luscious high notes at a soft dynamic. I found myself playing notes from the Daphnis et Chloe excerpt, and realized I was playing them more freely than usual! Normally, I look at Daphnis and start panicking about rhythms, the opening run, changing colors, etc. Taking only key notes while I was in sound-exploration mode helped me understand what kind of mind-set and airsteam I'll need for that excerpt. Once I felt that I was producing those sounds naturally, I played the excerpt in full and had a very different experience.

WHY IS THIS HELPFUL? CHANGING CONTEXT CHANGES YOU

Where do you spend more time luxuriating and observing a small collection of notes? During warm-up / fundamental practice, or while practicing a piece? When I’m on actual exercises, I’m super focused on improving. When I'm at the repertoire stage of practice, more factors come into play. It can be easier to feel distracted and start jumping around too quickly before solving a problem. 

One of the greatest benefits, however, is injecting actual musical context into fundamentals. If you need a fresh idea for which character you'd like your Taffanel and Gaubert scales in, look no further than your repertoire!

In A Rut: Replacing Guilt with Inspiration

When it comes to motivation for growth, music majors come to thrive on the structure provided by music school. We have a calendar full of auditions, solo or class recitals, weekly studio classes, ensemble rehearsals, performances and more to keep up with. With the line-up of goals and weekly guidance from our teachers, we can get into a groove and stay in it for a long stretch. (And our favorite practice room. We can stay in there, too.)

When school's out or we've graduated and are on our own for the first time, it is easy to feel lost, overwhelmed, or uninspired if no clear goals are in sight. 

CORE EXPERIENCES VERSUS SMALL JOLTS OF INSPIRATION

When thinking of what inspires me to keep going, it. Attending festivals, master classes, and committing to personal projects have been the crucial moments in my own development. (If you've seen the Pixar movie Inside Out, these core memories keep Flute Island going strong!)

What I've learned about the in-between times is that they provide an opportunity for a core learning experience to occur. The continuous stream of education during school is crucial and highly influential, but the moments we seek on our own, outside of our norm, are significant as well.

My own Core Experiences

During most of my summers as a student, I was fortunate to experience breakthrough master classes and accomplish personal projects:

In the summer after the first year as an undergraduate, I attended my first master class with Gary Schocker. This was a turning point for me, because I was introduced to the Alexander Technique. The positive experience was a huge burst that stayed with me through my degree.

The following summer, I attended ARIA, a more intensive class with greater challenges. A repertoire list was provided with a list of excerpts, pieces, and etudes, some I was unfamiliar with. I took it upon myself to learn as many as possible. 

My third summer, I received a research grant to study Body Mapping, a huge turning point for my playing and teaching that influences me today. This decision led me to attend FSU as a graduate student. (Another crucial core experience that led me to my exact path!)

Summer before graduate school, I started this blog! This began as a means of continuing to improve on my own. In the summers between undergrad, I knew what to expect each year, and knew what I could work on. Before grad school, I had a repertoire list as a guideline for auditions, which spent a lot of time preparing. (Another source of structure that was fundamental to my motivation to continue growing.) I also used this blog as a means of turning my experiences into coherent ideas for teaching, in preparation for becoming a teaching assistant.

Attending FSU and delving into my interests in working with body awareness and teaching are the culmination of my summer experiences, and continue to inspire me to practice and teach with intention.

SMALL JOLTS 

While we cannot ignore the monumental, life-changing experiences, they can be expensive and harder to come by. Sometimes, we think about about practicing, decide we don't want to, then feel guilty. We get into a rut, and the more days in a row we feel the guilt, the deeper we get. There are small decisions we can make that jolt us out of a rut, and lead us to an inspired practice session.

The following things motivate me to take my flute out:

  • Browse Musicians on YouTube
  • Find new pieces on Spotify
  • Listen to fellow musicians on SoundCloud
  • Go for a walk
  • Attend a concert
  • Dance to 90s music
  • Organize your practice space
  • Take a lesson
  • Come up with your musicians' bucket list (Pieces to Learn, Hear, Perform...)
  • Drink Water 
  • Power Nap
  • Try a new instrument, then go back to your own
  • Constructive Rest
  • Yoga
  • Polish your instrument
  • Teach a lesson
  • Do Cardio
  • Listen to old recordings
  • Get dressed up and play a recital for yourself
  • Visit a Musem
  • Play along with a recording of your favorite symphony
  • Sing in the car
  • Read memoirs of musicians
  • Make a painting based on a piece
  • Watch master class videos or audit a live workshop

Or, open this book up and hear from a flute hero!

Overcoming guilt

When I began feeling overwhelmed with the work-life balance after graduate school, I simply wouldn't practice. I did not want to know what I would sound like, and I felt extreme guilt. I no longer deserved to play my instrument, and I had lost time. I ultimately needed to accept my new environment, carving out a space to return to practicing.

Time away is okay. I have heard many teachers and musicians state that time away is beneficial, and when we return, we're often refreshed and better than before. (I now believe them because I've experienced this myself more than once since then!) It is okay to feel guilt, it is okay to be frustrated - it is normal. It is an emotional process to go through a rut, but it is a pivotal time to uncover what truly motivates you. Trust in the journey of acceptance, and trust that you're simply in-between. There is always something new on the horizon, and when it happens, it will mean that much more.