I used to wear the title of “Perfectionist” as a badge of honor. My former office mates and I, for example, jokingly competed for being more “type A” than the next person: one would make sure all the papers in the files were facing the same way, and I would make sure that the tabs for any added files would alternate flawlessly – left, middle, right, left, middle, right. . . . We bragged about how well-formatted our spreadsheets were. Being on the finance team, our ability to reconcile accounts down to the last penny was implicitly part of our job description.
As a composer, I’ve realized that perfectionism is encouraged frequently to some extent and with good reason. Precise notation minimizes uncertainty for performers and makes rehearsals more efficient. Thoughtful orchestrations ensure that gesture is not lost.
However, I’ve also learned the hard way that such meticulous attention to detail has a time and place. My weakness is that I allow perfectionism to creep in way too early in the creative process, preventing me from letting ideas flow freely so that I can complete a piece. I’m learning to own the fact that improvisation is one of the compositional techniques that generates my ideas rapidly, but for some reason, part of me feels obligated to over-intellectualize my pieces early on.
For instance, in one section of a theme-and-variations-based piece that I began in the fall, I struggled with the texture of one variation in particular: I would write an idea, discard it, and repeat the process with much frustration. There was a gap in the piece for months on end, but I had decided that the pacing was not satisfactory if I eliminated that section. Yet, after improvising on the piano during a 15-minute break at work, I finally came up with the texture I wanted. I instantly recorded it on my phone so that I could remember the details when I got home.
Since I graduated from college, I’ve had less of an impetus to stick to deadlines such as end-of-semester recitals that force me to put down my pencil and say that the piece is “good enough” to share or perform. I’ve found that I have relatively little trouble coming up with new ideas, yet developing the ideas through their completion is much more of a struggle. Unfortunately, using self-imposed deadlines as a strategy to counteract this tendency has often had little effect on me. I simply keep extending them.
One of the mantras that I’ve learned from Rory Vaden’s best-seller Procrastinate on Purpose is, “Done is better than perfect.” More often than not, if I am waiting to complete something because I feel that it is not “perfect,” I fail to complete the project at all. As a result, I tend to lose self-esteem because I deny myself a sense of accomplishment, giving myself even less confidence to tackle the next project at hand. The result is an ongoing, downward emotional spiral.
I’m slowly learning to combat my desire for perfection by seeking satisfaction in the progress that I’ve made. When I allow myself to be content, I can finally reflect on what worked and utilize that knowledge to move forward, building my confidence instead of tearing it down. Even when ideas don’t work out, framing them as an opportunity to learn from what didn’t work allows me to further my progress.
In the case of the seemingly magical fifteen minutes where I re-wrote an entire section of that piece, reframing my failures in this way made me realize that it wasn’t just that moment that helped me to arrive at a solution. It was changing my process from simply discarding ideas to identifying morsels of progress in those subsequent drafts which helped me to finally move forward.
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Sakari Dixon Vanderveer’s work connects people of all ages and backgrounds over a shared love of music. A composer, violist, and teaching artist, she eagerly collaborates with creatives of various disciplines, especially if such projects enable children to experience the joy of creating art. Photography by William Vasta, 2014