The Culture of Perfectionism in Performing Arts


When learning how to sing, or studying any performing art, let’s face it, perfectionism inhibits us.  For centuries, performing arts teachers and students have demanded perfection when it comes to their craft.  But in recent times, with new research, there seems to be more awareness that striving for excellence may be a better approach.  What’s the difference?  First let’s take a look at only a few ways in which perfectionism inhibits our progress.  (keeping in mind that there are many more ways)

Perfectionism has time limits to progress.  It demands that you already be at the finish line, as soon as possible, and leaves no room for slower steadier growth.  For example, during a first lesson, I’ve heard students say, “how come my voice isn’t fully connected at my passaggio?”  Rather than acknowledging “it may take some time before my bridge is fully polished, so I am willing to recognize that and work with the tools you’ve given me.”

Perfectionism leaves no room for YOU.   With perfectionism, it is only the ‘false self’ that gets strengthened, and you can’t be authentic.  Vulnerability is essential in singing and performing.  Without it, there is a huge wall between you and your audience.  Most audiences can’t relate to inauthentic performers and can see right through it.  This is why performers who are relatable and just themselves can sometimes sell the most concert tickets, and yet they don’t necessarily have the most flawless vocals.

“In a culture plagued with the notion of ‘hard work’, how can we strive for excellence as performers without compromising our balance as human beings.”

Perfectionism doesn’t allow for the present moment. It is sometimes too wrapped up in the end result and ‘getting it over with’.  Then when the end of the performance happens, very often the artist is left disappointed that it’s over so quickly, and they didn’t get to enjoy the process.

So where do we find the balance between doing well and keeping our sanity.  In a culture plagued with the notion of ‘hard work’, how can we strive for excellence as performers without compromising our balance as human beings.

There is a poem written by an unknown author called “Excellence vs Perfection and one of the quotes is: “Perfection is fear.  Excellence is risk”  So at some point we may need to take the risk of a new approach in going about our creative craft.  A process of self reflection may be necessary and here are some questions we can ask ourselves:

Is there a balance between technique and performance in my approach? Performance psychologist Noa Kajeyama puts it best: “The more you focus on technical perfection, the more nervous you will tend to be. Why? Because you don’t have much else going for you — and you know that the likelihood of a technically perfect performance is close to zero. There is a part of you that knows you are likely to fail from both a technical perspective and a “move the audience to tears” perspective. No wonder you’re nervous – you’re setting yourself up to fail.”

Am I over-practicing to the point of vocal or body fatigue, un-enjoyment, or self resentment?  Or am I using deliberate practice, shorter (more productive) practice times with more focus on weaker spots coming out of my practice sessions seeing more results.

Is someone pressuring me due to their own insecurities? (agents, managers, friends or family)  Do I need to set boundaries with those around me in order to excel at my craft without feeling psychological pressure?  Or am I pressuring myself due to my own insecurities?

Have I taken the time to reward myself for a job well done or to celebrate milestones in my progress?  Looking at the glass half full very often leads to greater achievements.

Am I relying on the approval of the audience?  Every artist knows that not everyone is going to like your performance. So focus on self-validation and work with a trusted and qualified teacher than can provide you with constructive feedback.

Lastly, when the state of perfectionism overpowers us, one of the most important and profound questions we can ask ourselves is…

When someone says I did a good job, do I have the courage to believe them? 

Headshot for website Alida is a singer, songwriter and musician based in Vancouver, Canada.  A graduate of UBC Music, Alida is also a certified IVA singing teacher.