Posted by: laurie689 | May 16, 2013

In Defense of Imperfection: Thoughts on Our Attitudes About Performance

The audience sits ready to hear the musician in concert, looking forward to an enjoyable performance. The musician stands backstage, ready to begin. He or she may feel quite confident, or may be scared to death. Chances are that if the performer has practiced adequately, he or she has some confidence that the concert will go well. On the other hand, excess adrenalin can make the hands shake or sweat, the head spin, and the mind go haywire. A well-practiced set can become a disaster.

It’s considered common wisdom that stage fright is normal for the neophyte but is less of an issue as one gains skill and experience. Yet this is often not true. There’s a story about Pablo Cassals (the renown cellist) who upon injuring his hand actually felt relieved to think he might never have to perform again. This is not an uncommon feeling among professional musicians. (His hand healed, by the way, and he continued his career.)

Although there are those who exude confidence, for many amateurs and professionals stage fright is the bane of our existence. You can’t always tell which performers are scared, because part of being a good performer is knowing how to look confident. Yet putting one foot in front of the other to walk onto a stage can feel like walking to a gallows, when what we really want is to enjoy our own performances! Why perform otherwise?

The strangest thing about stage fright is that it’s the fright itself that can cause a performance to be less than perfect. You know you have the musical skill, so “there is nothing to fear but fear itself.”

Where does stage fright originate, and why does it persist? The answer is simple: stage fright persists in our musical culture because we have come to expect performances to be note-perfect. Among musicians of all ages and skill levels, that attitude alone is responsible for more grief than can be measured.

It probably arose with the advent or recording. We can engineer a recording to be perfect, and/or play a piece over and over until we’ve recorded a “perfect” version”, so we can present to the listener something that tells a lie about performance. It’s necessary, of course, because a recording gets played again and again, and no one wants to hear the same mistakes over and over. But since most listeners are not necessarily musicians, or perhaps even though they may be musicians, the perfection of a recording creates the impression that all performances can and should be perfect.

Sustained perfection is not humanly possible. Expecting anyone to do what no one can do is not just unrealistic, it’s insane. We may as well expect ourselves to sprout wings and fly.

I once attended a recital of J.S. Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier (a set of twelve pieces) by an accomplished pianist, who made a mistake about two-thirds of the way through the concert. She stopped, went back to the first piece and started the entire set over, whereupon she made it through without audible error. The audience had to sit through what we’d already heard, it became a very long concert, and though she got through the second time without error, why did she do this to her audience? Not because she had lost her place or could not play through her mistake. It was because she wanted to prove that she could play it perfectly. Yet all she did was prove that she could sometimes play it perfectly. This lady was more concerned about her idea of “perfection” and about her pride than about musicianship.

It’s fair to say that audiences can be hard on performers, too. Some years ago, a friend of mine (one of the most accomplished harpers alive today) performed at a local venue, and I was unable to attend; later I asked someone how the concert was. The report I was given consisted of one sentence: “He hit a bass string that buzzed really loudly, right in the middle of one piece.”  That was the entirety of the report; it was the main thing the listener remembered. Yet I know for a fact that there were hundreds of beautiful and well-played notes before and after the one “bad” note; this harpist cannot be anything other than brilliant.

Perfection and musicianship are not synonymous!

In fact, striving for perfection can get in the way of musicianship. We tend to give undue negative attention to mistakes, not because there is some inherent importance to them, but simply because we are taught to. Those awful piano recitals when we were kids, for instance, were like sending lambs to slaughter, accomplishing nothing more than hammering into young, impressionable minds the idea that our worth as human beings should be judged by whether or not we can play a piece of music perfectly. When our identity is at stake, no wonder we develop chronic stage fright.

The fact is, in most performances good players simply cover and play through imperfections so you don’t notice them. When a mistake occurs that cannot be hidden, many good performers will make a joke and keep going; the audience most often will enjoy the humor and appreciate that the performer is human. If we were not so hard on ourselves, and if we nurtured audiences to look for the beauty and wonder in a performance instead of eagle-eyeing for mistakes, it would make our music more joyful to play and to hear.

Playing Accurately vs. Playing Perfectly

Of course we want to play accurately; that is, we want our music to have recognizable melodies, harmonies, rhythms, and so on.  We should strive for the music to be audibly “all there”. But accuracy is not synonymous with perfection. Accuracy is simply precision, and it’s part of good musicianship. We can play in a precise way and still make occasional errors.

Many amateur musicians slur over notes or let thunks and clunks happen where notes should be; that’s not accuracy. Or one may allow their music to have inconsistent timing or imprecise rhythms; that’s not accuracy. If you’re not playing accurately you need more practice. What doesn’t work in the privacy of your living room won’t work in performance.

Once you’ve attained accuracy, your errors will decrease as well, but I know of no one who has ever achieved the ability to play music without an occasional error. Therefore, being afraid of making mistakes is, as I said before, insane. Don’t buy into that. If you’ve practiced well, there is no reason for fear, and anyone who would fault you for an occasional error isn’t listening for the actual music anyway.


  1. Thank you Laurie; this comes at an opportune time, as I am about to play a piece of yours in a harp recital. Very well stated.

  2. Dear Laurie, I’ve loved all your writing, but this one is really special. I wish these words of wisdom could go to every music student right now! When I first started harp long ago in Marin, I was worried about perfection because of the rather strict piano lessons I had as a child. I wanted to play but the perfection thing got in the way.

    When I came back to the harp in my late 60’s, I was fortunate to start with Chris Caswell, and I think he shared your views. That is, he was listening for and teaching the music, the feeling, the coloration. He helped me a lot by just changing the way I learned. He told me no printed music; he wanted me to learn by ear rather than to worry about a lot of notes on paper. Mistakes were just a part of the learning. When I would be playing along with him and get confused, we would just laugh and try again. A very accepting and joyous way of teaching.

    Thanks for your writing.

    Best Regards, Bev Riverwood

    Date: Thu, 16 May 2013 20:16:56 +0000 To:

  3. Thank you Laurie. You understand. -Dee on Lake Huron

  4. Thank you, Laurie. This is so well said. It really made me think about the way I approach performing, not just when I’m about to walk on stage but when I’m preparing at home. You’ve given us a sort of mantra to remember each time we sit down at the harp or piano or to sing which will free us to appreciate what we hear as well as what we offer to the listeners. Wonderful food for thought. It is interesting that being more experienced isn’t a cure for “stage fright”. It seems like that should make sense but it doesn’t really work that way. As a beginner I remember feeling it was ok to make mistakes, and of course the harp is very forgiving. Fortunately most folks in the audience seem to focus not on mistakes but on the mood you create for them. But as I gained more experience and exposure, at times it felt as though I had more to loose if I didn’t play “perfectly”. Your message here is protection against those thoughts that get in the way of really connecting with the harp and with the listener.

    Thank goodness for harp friends and teachers who can get inside your brain and make you look at things differently. I’ve never forgotten some of the wonderful messages you’ve given over the years and they have helped so much. I always thank my angels for the privilege of playing and for being there for me. (And I think you are one of them.)

    • Yes, the more I have invested in playing a piece, the more intense is the experience of making mistakes. Yesterday, just before I played Laurie’s tune, Saguaro at a recital, I wrote out on a piece of paper, “It is alright to make a mistake”; this sounds so simplistic, but for decades I have always focused on the mistakes, and fought the mistakes, and treated mistakes as the ultimate defeat; even though I knew that all musicians made mistakes, and even though I knew that it is much more important to make music than to worry about mistakes.
      Sort of like the 11th commandment in my mind: Thou must not make a mistake.
      And to undo the years of my brain chiding me for making mistakes and hearing them as an “offense”, is a new way to operate.
      And I did make a few note mistakes yesterday, but kept the momentum, and did not fall apart; the mistakes were smoothed out, and not really noticeable unless you knew the piece. That is how I’d prefer to make my mistakes, and I am trying to learn how to minimize mistakes too; and be comfortable while making the mistake.
      I had practiced hard and well; had practiced my beginning and ending a lot, and practiced the piece inside and out, on the harp, in my head and on paper. I discovered that as I am a visual learner, working with the score, and writing out in writing what I needed to think about was a new aid. (I charted the sections, the chords, and even some of the melody; I wrote out what I had to remember and focus on in each section; fingerings, chords, dynamics, mood, key changes, etc. I thought about the tune a lot and visualized myself playing it through; I played it for as many people beforehand as I could find. I expended a lot of work to prepare that one piece, for maybe 60 people to hear, and I took extra care because it was in public. And I have to admit that performing a piece for others gets me to dig in much more deeply, than I would if I was just playing for myself.

  5. I love this piece, well written. Since I have a terrible case of stagefright, it really helps to be understood so good!
    Words of wisdom for me, but also perhaps It should be in print and handed out to the audience?! 😉
    Thank you for this, Laurie. It brings me a step closer to perhaps one day perform…..

  6. I really enjoyed reading this ,sent to me by alex Coursen. Thank you made a lot of sense Imperfection or perfection is always on my mind. Sincerely, Jacqui McCarthy

  7. Thanks for the distinction between playing accurately and playing perfectly.

  8. Bless your heart for this… have NO idea how very much I need this at this time !! I am going to read it…and re-read it….and apply it….and hopefully overcome my fear. THANK YOU, Laurie !!

  9. Dear Laurie: you’ve no idea how affirming this piece is. I’m getting my first harp at 62. A double strung, Lorraine.
    I want to be free of terror in order to play for family, at the nursing home, at the hospital lobby, to ease the stress of having a loved one in the hospital.
    I remember singing the same solo ion 2 different venues: one at our church, with a tiny turnout & the other in front of professionals from around our small city. You can well imagine what happened. I want to be as comfortable in front of strangers as I was with our priest & friends.

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