On Perfectionism and Music


"Jazz stands for freedom. It's supposed to be the voice of freedom: Get out there and improvise, and take chances, and don't be a perfectionist..." - Dave Brubeck

When I began playing the guitar at the age of 11. I was intrigued by how the instrument sounded. I wondered how players such as Eddie Van Halen and Steve Vai were able to get the instrument to produce what I was hearing on their albums. Later, I was amazed by accomplished improvisers like my first mentor, jazz guitar great Jimmy Bruno. Despite the challenges, much fun was had in going through the learning process.

As hard as I worked at improving my guitar playing skills, I was not driven by a need to be perfect. The motivation was in working through the challenges and finding my own voice. By 16, I reached a point as a guitarist where others were willing to pay me to play and teach.

When I was 18, I came very close to quitting music altogether. I had read an interview with one of my favorite guitarists, Eric Johnson. The preamble to the interview referred to Johnson as a perfectionist. Despite not really even knowing what that meant, I immediately dove head first into perfectionism.

This rigor went on for approximately six months during which time I felt that everything I played was horrendous. Rather than easing up, I decided the solution was to drive myself even harder. The more I drove myself, the harsher I became with respect to my playing. I simply could do no right.

Eventually, I reached a point where I verbally lashed out at a member of the audience during a set break on a gig. Why? He had the audacity to compliment my playing. A close friend overheard my rebuff; he confronted me about it, and I am glad he did.

During the confrontation, I experienced a moment of clarity: I had no idea what I was actually doing in adopting such an ideal in the first place. I never even stopped to define perfectionism in music for myself. All I knew was that perfection appealed to me only because another guitarist whom I admired was said to have been one; being a perfectionist sounded like what I needed in order to get better.

If anything, the enormous stress I placed on myself caused me to play far worse than I had before. What once was technically fluid became choppy and strained; my improvised solos became forced; and the enjoyment I had in playing the guitar vanished.

Once I dispensed with being a perfectionist altogether, everything improved and enjoyment in performing and learning returned. To this day, I urge students to avoid the pitfalls associated with perfectionism. Instead, play with sincerity and maintain integrity (i.e., avoid getting in your own way). As long as you do that, you cannot go wrong; whatever perfection happens to be available will be present.

What are your thoughts and experiences with perfectionism? Please share your story below.

Dr. Seth Greenberg