Recalibrate Your Yardstick

Perfection: A Cruel YardstickPhoto of yardstick

I’ve mentioned in a previous blog that the expectations we have of ourselves, if they’re unrealistic, create stress.  Many musicians are perfectionists.  It’s not surprising.  We start young, before we can see the slippery slope ahead of us.  In the band, orchestra, or choir, a mistake stands out and can cause others to make mistakes.  As a soloist, mistakes are even more apparent, and the first mistake can cause a cascade of problems.  The loss of concentration, irregular rhythm, or having your fingers in the wrong place can easily make something else go wrong.  So we try to avoid errors, and the absence of errors is perfection.  Right out of the dictionary, “Perfection – The quality or state of being perfect: freedom from fault or defect.” (

As a goal, perfection isn’t too bad.  It keeps us thinking about and redefining what a “flaw” is.  It keeps us looking for the next level.  For us “perfectionists”, it can be a motivator to stay on the quest for improvement.

Though it might do as a goal, perfection makes a very poor yardstick for performance.  This yardstick has only 2 markings on it.  There’s a hairline at one end that is “Perfection” and all the rest of it marked “Flawed” or “Failure”.

The Hairline on the Yardstick

Let’s look at this hairline using the microscope of logic and analysis.

The Objective View

There are probably hundreds of notes in your piece.  Depending on your instrument, you may have to attack (start) and release (end) each note in a certain way.  If you have control of the pitch, you’ll have to get that right, too.  There may be a tremolo, quaver, slide, or other variance in tone to get right.  And of course, every note should start and stop within a few hundredths of a second of the ideal time.  If you’re accelerating or decelerating, that ideal changes with each note.  Otherwise, it stays as constant as a stopwatch.

If you multiply out all the factors, there are millions of variables to get right.  Only a computer or machine could do it, and we all know how poorly computers and machines make music.  To make music well, it takes feeling.  Therefore, there’s no objective measure for perfection.

The Subjective View

From the audience’s point of view, perfection is relative.  When I joined Toastmasters and received feedback on my speeches, I was amazed that everyone seemed to see and hear a different speech.  There were parts that everyone liked or thought weak, but most aspects got mixed reviews.  What one person found inspiring, another thought was only worth a yawn.  One person would think some aspect went especially well, but no one else would even mention it.  In public speaking, it’s a fact that each audience member brings their own thoughts, feelings, experiences to the hearing.  Given this, you cannot perform a piece to conform to every audience member’s sense of perfection.  Therefore, your audience can’t have a single subjective measure for perfection.

The Moving Target

When I first started piano, I thought if I played all the notes, my performance was perfect.  Then I discovered that I had to play with both hands – at the same time – and in rhythm!  As an organist, I thought my performance was perfect when I could get both hands and feet going at the same time.  But my professor pointed out that I didn’t play with emotion.  He was right – I’ve noticed that very few robots attend church or concerts!  A couple of levels beyond my imagination, there’s probably the Zen of each note entering and leaving our attention, and the silences between them.  Because my definition of perfection changes over time – and will continue to do so, I don’t have a single subjective measure for perfection.


When you use “Perfection” as the measure of your performance, any flaw casts it from the hairline into the “flawed” or “failed” portion of the yardstick.  It doesn’t matter how small or brief it is, on this yardstick it’s a flaw.  That’s why it’s such a cruel yardstick: since perfection can’t be defined in any practical way, you can’t reach it.  You can’t win – you’re doomed to failure!  Worse, after a while, you feel that it’s not just your performances that fail.  You feel that you are a failure.  That’s devastating: it puts you in needless pain and may steer you away from performing and sharing your love of music with others.  That’s what happened to me.

A New Yardstick

If you’re a perfectionist, you need a new yardstick: one that doesn’t set you up to fail.  You need a yardstick that doesn’t measure just “Perfect” or “Flawed”, because good music isn’t just the absence of flaws.  You need the yardstick of “Excellence”, which measures how much merit your performance has.

“Excellence” is a multi-sided yardstick, because there are many aspects to music, all of which have a spectrum of merit.  For instance, one side is marked “Pitch”, because accurate pitch is important.  But “accurate” is relative, because the blue note is sometimes the correct pitch and sliding into or out of the note in the score sometimes sounds best.  Our equal-temperament tuning practices mean that most notes are flawed, yet they’re good enough to sound musical.  But for instruments that can get the exact pitch every time, close is not as good as exact.  So, there are many markings on the “pitch” side that indicate how excellent your pitch is.

Another side of the yardstick is marked “Rhythm”.  Like pitch, there’s no abstract “perfect” rhythm, but there’s a continuum of markings.  At one end, along the edge that measures control, there’s so little control that you can’t play what you intended.  At the other end, you can play exactly what your imagination calls for.  Along the other edge is another set of markings from “Poor” to “Excellent” rhythm.  There might be other markings for how well the composer’s instructions were followed or whether it was sufficiently stately or energetic enough for the occasion.  That’s because there are many ways to measure your performance’s rhythm and they all have merit.  In fact, some of them might be contradictory.  No wonder that perfection is so hard to reach – if it’s even possible.

The Realistic Yardstick

When you measure your performance with the “Excellence” yardstick, you get a much more realistic appraisal.  At Toastmasters, one side of the yardstick is marked “Courage”, and it could well be on your musical yardstick, too.  Even if the performance didn’t go well, there’s some merit in having the courage to try.  Without courage and trying, you’ll never improve.  With them, improvement is almost a certainty.  On the “Perfection” yardstick, these factors don’t show up at all, yet their importance is undeniable.

The other sides of the yardstick tend to force you to be more realistic about your performance.  Even if it wasn’t perfect throughout, if you were on pitch some of the time, it had some merit.  To the extent that you can think of being better, it could have more merit.  It’s realistic to give yourself credit for what you can do now and to have the next level as a goal.  And by charting your progress along the scale of “Excellence”, you can stay motivated to improve much more effectively than chalking up one inevitable “failure” after another.

Excellence, Not Perfection

If you can’t define perfection, you’ll never know how to reach it, or be able to tell if you’ve succeeded.  But if you can define musical merit and you are realistic, you can tell how much of it your performance has.  This sets the stage for continuous improvement, and eventually, consistent excellence.  Throw away that cruel yardstick and use a realistic one.  From your current place on the ladder of merit, look for and reach for the next rung.  Then you’ll be able to climb onward to excellence!