Perfectionism in Composition: The Ultimate Goal Creating Impassable Roadblocks

I am very much a perfectionist, and this comes out in almost everything I do.  From the simplest tasks at work to my artistic endeavors, I strive to make everything the best I can.  But where do we as artists draw the line between a healthy goal of achieving beauty (and even potentially a masterpiece) and the inhibiting and self-destructive pursuit of perfection?

Striving to write beautiful and powerful music has been my goal since I started composing many years ago.  However, I've recently realized that my own perfectionist nature has made me freeze up when dealing with the compositions I've been striving to write.  I currently have around 15 or more unfinished projects in various stages of development.  Each one was started with enthusiasm but has since become stagnant, and the main reason behind this is the desire to get everything "right" on it.

I pondered about this the other night while driving home.  I was listening to a piece on the radio and was criticizing the composers choice of a motive in the first movement of his symphony.  I felt their were too large of leaps in the theme to make an effective motive.  Yet, as I listened and didn't pay attention to that small detail I noticed that - while not refined as I would have like it to have been - the Symphony was gorgeous and powerful.  When the second movement came on, I was was in awe at the beauty of it.  The different themes interwove in such an amazing way that I wanted to keep listening.  The third movement came on with such energy and passion that I was sad that I had arrived home (though glad to go inside to see my wife and boy!).

What was remarkable about this to me was the fact that though there were some flaws in the composition and the performance, I heard something remarkable in that Symphony.  Sadly, I didn't get to hear who the composer was, but it made me think back on an experience at BYU-Idaho playing Tchaikovsky's 1st Symphony.  My professor, Brother Robert Tueller told how many composers criticized his Symphony as being weak and not well refined.  It was written when Tchaikovsky was first studying composing at a conservatory and so was an "immature" work in many respects.  Yet he declined to change it later in his life.  When I played it and when I listen to it, it has such amazing power behind it, and it is a beautiful composition.  Listen for yourself to even the first movement to see what I mean:

This has made me wonder:  at what point does perfectionism inhibit rather than help when composing?  At what point does it harm an artist's ability to create rather than help?

Here are some interesting things to ponder on from the University of Exeter:

Sets standards beyond reach and reason
Are never satisfied by anything less than perfection
Become dysfunctionally depressed when experiencing failure and disappointment
Are preoccupied with fear of failure and disapproval which depletes energy levels
See mistakes as evidence of unworthiness
Become overly defensive when criticized

Contrast this to those with a healthy sense of achievement:

High Achievers:
Sets high standards, but just beyond reach
Enjoys process as well as outcome
Bounces back from failure and disappointment quickly and with energy
Keeps normal anxiety and fear of failure and disapproval within bounds – uses them to create energy
Sees mistakes as opportunities for growth and learning
Reacts positively to helpful criticism
(The previous information taken directly from University of Exeter website.  See the full page for all of the information)

I am reminded of some thoughts that I had during a Student Composer Society meeting at BYU-Idaho.  A gentleman talked about how a composer had made "mistakes," and his goal was to never make compositional mistakes.  When he said this, I realized that what one might consider a mistake may have a reason behind it.  The composer may intend to do something very specific with the way he is portraying something that may sound "wrong" to one person, but may convey the correct meaning to another.

In a sense, then, a composer's work should not ever be about "perfection," but about portraying accurately to the best of his/her ability what they hope to convey.  A composer's skill levels at that time may not be up to the task of it yet, and they may make "mistakes," but does that negate the beauty of something?  Does that make a composition useless, worthless, or any less beautiful?

What I hope to convey with this is not that artists should not be striving for their best possible work, Artists should always strive for the best, but they should not be inundated or overly concerned with "mistakes" lest they miss the opportunity to make beautiful art that - despite whatever human flaws may be in it - may be loved and cherished by many people.


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