By: Dr. Erin Parkes

Any music educator who has been teaching for a while knows that perfectionism can be more of a curse than a blessing. It can be crippling for students who are not able to feel good about their progress unless their performance is “perfect” (which is an unattainable goal), and can hamper the learning process as students will often avoid that feeling of not being good enough and give up altogether. And yet, so much of our approach in traditional music education does support students’ beliefs that perfection in music performance does exist, and is something to strive for. We encourage students to spend countless hours practicing and drilling to get to it “right,” which then inevitably means that anything else is “wrong.” This can be toxic for students who struggle with perfectionism.

While perfectionism is certainly problematic in neurotypical populations, there are many students with exceptionalities who are more likely to struggle with this issue. There is a high correlation between people who are intellectually gifted and perfectionism. According to the National Association for Gifted Children, approximately 20% of gifted children display unhealthy perfectionistic tendencies. This can be especially challenging for twice exceptional or 2E students (those who are intellectually gifted and have an additional diagnosis, like autism, ADHD or a learning disability) as their secondary exceptionality can make it all the more difficult for them to achieve that perfection they believe they should be able to achieve. This can lead to intense feelings of unworthiness and frustration.

Autistic students may also be more likely to suffer from perfectionism. This can be due to black or white thinking, or feeling like there is one way for things to be and any other way is wrong. We often see this manifest in various ways in autistic students (such as repeating phrases with specific intonation) and in certain cases, facilitating this can be comforting and beneficial for the student. However, when it comes to music performance where we’re relying on our bodies and minds to work together in exactly the same error-free way over and over again, it’s just not possible and so our students will inevitably hit a wall of frustration.

Underlying all of this is anxiety. Unhealthy perfectionism is often an outward projection of inner anxiety. Trying to make everything perfect can be an effort to create order. It can also be linked to lack of self-worth and insecurity. And unfortunately, perfectionism creates a vicious cycle in this regard, as it is impossible to achieve perfection and this perpetuates the underlying issue that is causing the anxiety. Here are a few signs that your student is struggling with perfectionism:

  • Needing to start at the beginning every time they make a mistake (though this may also be due to relying on muscle memory to get them through the piece, so watch for other signs!)
  • Demonstrating intense frustration when there are errors
  • Procrastination when faced with difficult tasks where they may not excel
  • Over-practicing
  • Communicating feelings of unworthiness or demonstrating negative self-talk

So, how can we support students so that they don’t get dragged down by their perfectionism? Here are some strategies that allow students to feel successful in music lessons:

  • Include musical activities where there is no “right” way, like improvisation or creative
    composition. This softens the view that music performance is all about getting it right
  • Avoid scenarios where assessment is based on achieving a rigid standard of performance, like exams or festivals. Allow music learning to be about self-fulfillment and enjoyment rather than achievement.
  • Encourage students to make pieces their own. Try a version where they change the articulation or dynamics, add harmonic variations, or whatever is appropriate for them. If this is challenging for your student, you can play the piece with variations while your student accompanies with percussion instruments. The point is to experience that there is not just one right way to perform the piece.
  • Set goals for practice that are small and achievable. Make it clear that the expectation is not for everything to be achieved all at once, and celebrate success when the student meets their goals.
  • Allow music making to be a creative process rather than goal-oriented. Let it not matter whether or not mistakes are made—make it clear to your student that they are a totally acceptable part of the learning process.
  • If it appeals to your student, include extra-musical activities like writing a story or creating art to accompany the piece. This can deepen that creative process and allow the student to focus on the artistry of the piece rather than simply seeing the piece as something to be perfected.

While we do want our students to achieve to their full potential, it is most important to foster a love of music making and safety in the learning process. While this can be extra challenging with perfectionistic students, with support and creativity we can create an environment where music can be a sanctuary rather than another achievement.

Happy teaching!