Perfectly Imperfect Anxiety

Like many other musicians out there, I have a complex and oftentimes unhealthy relationship with perfection. This pursuit for perfection, I have learned through therapy and talking this issue through with my friends and family, is a source of a lot of my anxiety in and out of music. During my studies, I distinctly remember feeling like I was far from the “perfect oboist” and would spend hours trying to make the “right” reed for a performance or getting all the notes in the passage to be there and sound musical. I would find myself getting lost making sure the intonation of each note was in the exactly correct space, oftentimes at the expense of musical expression. A few years ago, it got to the point where every note, every passage, and every reed would feel so wrong that to me it would never sound right and I was incapable of achieving my view of perfection. In its worst form, I found myself playing apologetically- afraid of what was coming out of my instrument and incapable of exploring anything that could possibly “fix” my musical issues out of fear of making my playing worse. I would apologize for everything I played. In rehearsal, someone would look at me and ask me a question, and I would be ready with my apology expecting to be reprimanded when they were actually seeking collaboration.

This was a hard moment for me. It felt like

I couldn’t sit with myself and be proud of the work that I was putting out, and it made growth an even cloudier process because I was unable to accept critique or hear recordings of myself without feeling totally ashamed that I couldn’t perform to an impossibly perfect standard. It became all-consuming, and that was a scary moment for me. From intonation issues to reed issues to specifically musical issues that were written on the page, I wanted to fix everything right away to show that I was a perfect student on his way to being the perfect oboist and musician. But this notion of “being perfect” prevented me from deeply exploring these issues and learning the solutions for these issues. I was so afraid of making a mistake that I was incapable of learning. In this unhealthy mental space, my pursuit for perfection became an inhibitor that prevented me from questioning something because of fear and anxiety about not being perfect.

And it’s this imperfection that we must face to truly grow. Perhaps we have to sit in this discomfort of not being perfect to question how to be better. It is in these moments of imperfection where we have to face ourselves and take on the attitude of learning.

We as musicians often strive to be the best player that we can be. I feel that if I can play every note on the page, play every note in tune, and communicate my musical message, I’ve done the best job. I feel I will have played the perfect performance. However, If we focus so closely on playing every note and playing it in tune, are we truly saying something? If we have played the most musical performance, but everything was out of tune, have we clearly communicated the composer’s musical message? If I don’t question these questions, am I playing perfectly? Does this notion of perfection truly exist?

When I left school and started freelancing in Chicago and working with the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestras in fundraising and development, I was forced to accept that being inherently “imperfect” was the best place to be. Facing freelance culture and office culture were all very new to me. In my position at CYSO, I had to especially change my approach to work. I had to create a space of constant learning because I was so new to admin and fundraising, and it was this mindset that changed the game for me as a musician and as a person. Accepting that I was inherently imperfect in this role was so freeing because I was not working to “fill a box,” but rather I was working to fulfill and enrich myself to be the best that I can be in this moment. This step back allowed me to sit in the discomfort of imperfection and break through new spaces as a musician.

When I signed up to write this blog post, I spent a long time thinking about how to express and share my feelings “perfectly” on the pursuit for perfection as a musician. How open can I be about this? Will people relate to me or judge me? …Ironic, right? But as I sit here thinking about perfection, I realize that my best breakthroughs have been admitting to myself that I'm not perfect and I'm still learning. And it is sitting in this imperfection that makes me all the more eager to learn.

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