Perfectionistic tendencies in musicians can be related to performance anxiety and distress. But did you know that there are 2 different sides to perfectionism? Certain facets of it can actually be helpful for your performance skills by increasing motivation and supporting achievement, whereas others can cause distress.
Do you remember the very first time you watched a singer or performer on stage? Was it then that you decided you wanted to be on that stage too?
It was for me.
I imagined how amazing it would be to be that talented singer, creating a wonderful experience for the audience and being applauded by them in return. Little did I know about the hard work and dedication that went into being a professional musician.
But these days, it is not the countless hours in the practice room or the dedication that I notice when watching a performance. It is the anxiety of the performer.
More specifically, the little "tells" that musicians have when things do not go as perfectly as they imagined — like a slight movement of the lower lip or chin to hide frustration or shame, maybe even some anger. Some fidgeting, hiding sweaty hands, taking a few too many breaths, a shaky voice...
I cannot tell when I first started noticing these. Maybe it was at a recital back when I took piano lessons as a kid. Maybe when I was attending a concert of my friends who studied vocal performance in university. Or maybe when I was watching my own clients struggling with anxiety, even in the accepting educational setting of a voice studio. And it always seemed to come with a flavour of perfectionism.
Luckily, a study has looked into the effects of perfectionism in musicians to see how it may be related to anxiety, achievement and motivation.
The Role of Perfectionism
In 2007, Joachim Stoeber and Ulrike Eismann designed a study to see how different aspects of perfectionism might affect young musicians (1). In addition to the music performance anxiety experienced by many musicians, there are also other issues — like emotional fatigue — arising from the constant pressure of taking lessons, practicing and performing. But apparently, the severity of distress and anxiety is dependent on the personality traits of musicians. More specifically, the trait of perfectionism.
Music, perhaps more than any other artistic pursuit, demands a high level of perfection from those hopeful of being successful in it. Every aspect of music is directly related to a search for perfection. (2)
Perfectionism is essentially to set excessively high standards and to strive for flawlessness. Unfortunately, it often comes with a tendency to be overly critical of one's own behaviour. Moreover, perfectionists also put greater importance on how others evaluate them. This results in feeling a pressure to live up to their standards and others'. As a result, those with a perfectionism trait experience more anxiety and distress.
But perfectionism doesn't have only one side. In fact, researchers have differentiated between perfectionistic strivings and perfectionistic concerns.
Let's take a closer look these.
Striving for perfection and having high personal standards can be totally normal and healthy, often with positive outcomes like excelling and higher achievement. On the other hand, perfectionistic concerns, like concern over making mistakes, having doubts about actions and negatively reacting to imperfections, are considered to be unhealthy and maladaptive.
It is easy to see how these two can result in different outcomes. But how is that relevant for musicians?
Well, the study found that different aspects of perfectionism are not all equal. To start with, striving for perfection was found to be related to intrinsic motivation (i.e. having their own reasons to pursue music studies). Intrinsic motivation was associated with higher effort and achievement, which is said to be an overall positive characteristic. Interestingly, striving for perfection was not found to be related to anxiety and distress. So it appears that perfectionistic strivings can indeed be healthy and positive.
In contrast, reacting negatively to imperfection correlated with extrinsic motivation ( = parental or teacher pressure). Reacting poorly to imperfection was found to be closely related to performance anxiety, emotional fatigue and somatic symptoms. Unsurprisingly, reacting negatively to imperfection had correlations with anxiety and distress, which is probably why it can be detrimental to mental and physical wellbeing of musicians.
As always, the study is not without some limitations. The most prominent limitation is that only certain aspects of perfectionism were investigated, especially for perfectionistic concerns where only reacting negatively to imperfections was included. These findings might differ if, for example, concern over making mistakes was considered too.
How To Use Perfectionism To Your Advantage
As a quick summary, perfectionistic strivings were found to be related to intrinsic motivation, higher effort and achievement whereas perfectionistic concerns were related to extrinsic motivation, anxiety and distress.
So how can you use this to your advantage?
Start by taking a look at your perfectionistic tendencies. Are you using perfection as a self-motivator to set higher standards for yourself, achieve more and perform better? Perfect — pun intended! And if you do not relate to having perfectionistic tendencies, you can try setting higher standards for a small task and surprising yourself. Who knows, maybe you will enjoy striving (a little) for perfection and benefit from it at the same time.
But do you find yourself having concerns over negative outcomes, making mistakes or being evaluated negatively by others? It might be worth it to switch your focus to avoid the anxiety and distress caused by these concerns. Chances are, if you've been living with these concerns for a while, this might feel impossible to do. This is where working with an informed coach specialising in performance anxiety, or even a therapist, might be worth considering.
Apparently, perfectionistic traits do not necessarily cause performance anxiety, but certain aspects of perfectionism can be unhealthy. If you aim to strive for best results and do not focus on imperfections or mistakes, you can make perfectionism work for you instead of causing anxiety or distress.
Stoeber, J. & Eismann, U. (2007). Perfectionism in young musicians: Relations with motivation, effort, achievement, and distress. Personality and Individual Differences, 43(8), 2182–2192. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2007.06.036
Dews, C. L. & Williams, M. S. (1989). Student Musicians' personality styles, stresses, and coping patterns. Psychology of Music, 17(1), 37–47. https://doi.org/10.1177/0305735689171004
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