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NYC231 cover image See all stories from issue #231, March/April 2012

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Perfectionista
My inner critic almost stopped the music
Linda S.
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One spring day, when I was 13 years old, I was flipping absent-mindedly through a continuing education catalog for my local community college. Suddenly, I saw a summer session class called “Beginner’s Piano Lessons for Children.” I had always wanted to learn to play an instrument. I was deeply intrigued by music and its ability to evoke strong emotions.

A few months earlier, I’d had my first experience with live, secular (non-religious) music. At church, I had been exposed to live Christian music and I was very fond of it. However, my first concert was such an amazing experience because of the eclectic mix of people who were there to see the band—an Australian electro-pop band called The Veronicas. I was mesmerized by their contagious enthusiasm and the harmonizing of the keyboard and the bass guitar. Remembering the concert, I thought to myself, “Why not give these piano lessons a try?” I broached the idea with my parents and they agreed. I would take piano lessons for the summer.

On the first day of piano class, the teacher stood and drew music notes on a blackboard marked with horizontal lines: stave lines. He told us the letter name and time value of each note as well.

It was all making sense to me, more than algebra or literature ever had. There were no quadratic equations to solve or esoteric quotes to dissect. Music was straightforward. I might just be good at this, I thought.

Middle School Anxiety

At the time, I did not feel very competent academically. Throughout middle school, I’d been in the top honors classes. All the students in my classes were very bright, motivated, and competitive, making me feel sluggish by comparison.

Math was the worst. In the 6th grade, I had struggled terribly in my math class. It was during this time that my anxiety began. Every day, my teacher would call me up to the board to solve problems. I felt that she picked on me simply because she knew that I didn’t know the answers. With my heart racing, I would walk up to the board hesitantly, half-heartedly accepting the chalk from my teacher’s hand.

I could never focus with the critical eyes of my peers on me. My teacher would direct me with the steps to solve each problem, but the second that I slowed down to think, she would push disrespectful remarks at me. She even called me “stupid.” This affected my self-esteem. There are only so many times you can hear something before you actually start to believe it. I lost confidence in my abilities, and, as a result, my academic performance suffered, not only in math class but across the board.

My piano class was a different story. I grew increasingly excited to attend each Saturday. In contrast to school, where I felt insecure about myself as a student, in piano class I felt confident, and thus liberated. As the weeks progressed, I learned to play a number of simple pieces, ranging from “Hush Little Baby” to “Au Clair de la Lune.” I followed my teacher’s advice and practiced every day.

I was extremely proud of myself. I even considered myself a musician, a pianist. I was amazed that I had found success. Playing the piano served as reassurance that I was indeed good at something.

Embracing Failure

That summer went by quickly. Before I knew it, I was entering 8th grade, my final year of middle school. Unlike in my piano class, I felt discouraged and disengaged. It didn’t help that the piano lessons had ended as the school year began, and I missed them. I started failing exams left and right, in every subject. I didn’t care about anything.

At this point, I truly believed that I was hopelessly and inescapably incompetent. So some time in 8th grade, I made my “I don’t care” attitude part of my identity as a way of trying to accept my inadequacies instead of feeling bad about them.

I completely gave up on studying and spent my days after school writing in my journal while listening to bands like Rancid—feel-good, “let’s live for today” music. I really connected to the lyrics. One song that I liked was called “Fall Back Down”:

“Don’t worry about me/I’m gonna make it all right/I take a bad situation/Gonna make it right/In the shadows of darkness/I stand in the light.”

I was clinging to the hope that things would improve in high school, where I would be able to take piano as an elective all four years. But I was not confident enough to practice pieces on my own. Without a teacher to guide me, I felt it would be frustrating to practice because my playing would not be perfect. And playing perfectly was what made me feel liberated. Thus, I did not touch my electronic keyboard for that entire year.

Chasing Perfection

On the day of my graduation from middle school, I was filled with resentment. I felt inferior and angry at myself for not having tried my best in school. I was also angry because I felt that my teachers and peers were unwilling to recognize my talents and strengths. I was seated next to the valedictorian of my graduating class, who was incredibly bright and motivated. She was called up to the stage countless times to receive awards. I, on the other hand, sat uncomfortably glued to my seat.

I felt as though I was no one special. I felt as though I had even failed at failing. I had tried to embrace an “I don’t care” attitude, but I realized that I had failed at that too.

When I arrived home, I was terribly upset. I thought of all the bad memories I had of middle school. I thought back to my 6th grade math teacher who’d told me that I was stupid. I knew I wasn’t the perfect student, but I was tired of being treated like a piece of trash. I decided that I had to be perfect. It seemed like the only way to earn respect and be treated as a human being.

My race for perfection began on the very first day of freshman year. I put my best foot forward, arriving to all of my classes promptly and well-prepared. I was most excited for my Beginner’s Piano class because it was the one place I felt confident and sure of success.

Throughout my freshman year my plan went smoothly, at least in terms of my grades. I strived for perfection in all areas and I essentially achieved it, except in my algebra class. I studied diligently, avidly participated in class discussions, and turned in all of my assignments on time.

image by Percy Tejeda

I grew accustomed to my A grades. However, with every high grade I earned, I set a new, even higher standard for myself. I was completely obsessed with my grades. Eventually, perfectionism began to ruin the one thing that had been my release: piano. That’s when things really began to tumble downhill.

Piano Becomes a Chore

During my sophomore year, I was constantly stressed out. I felt the need to perform even better than I had during my freshman year, but the classes were more rigorous. Sometimes, I felt as though my entire world revolved around my grade on a chemistry test. If I did poorly on one test, I would be so preoccupied that it was very difficult to study for the next test.

I’d progressed from Beginner to Advanced Piano, but even this class became a taxing competition to outdo my personal best. Some days in class, I would simply stare at the piece of music before me. I thought to myself, “Why even try if I cannot achieve perfection?”

At first, playing the piano had served a greater purpose. As Sir Thomas Beecham once said, “The function of music is to release us from the tyranny of conscious thought.” However, because I could no longer excel, music was no longer a release. At the end of the school year, I chose not to participate in the piano recital held by my school. I was embarrassed by my lack of progress and I feared being compared to my more advanced classmates.

I got an A in Advanced Piano, exactly what I had desired. Yet, I was still not satisfied. I was not at the level I wished to be and decided I would be an absolute failure if I did not manage to learn the last few remaining pieces of my Piano 1 music book before I started my junior year. Otherwise, my classmates would all be ahead of me, and maybe I would never be able to catch up.

All these negative thoughts cycled through my mind, and I thought back to when I was first introduced to the piano. I had felt so very confident, like I truly was gifted. I was no longer so sure.

Sounding Like an Amateur

My self-doubt came to a head when I opened to an unfamiliar piece in my music book one day, hesitantly placing it on the music stand. I switched on the keyboard and placed my fingers gently atop the keys. I stared at the sheet of music before me. Speak to me. Tell me who you are. No response.

Crescendos, dynamics, and sharps were strewn across the page, adjoining eighth notes descending off the stave. Beads of sweat begin to form across my forehead. What is this? I began tapping on the ivories, in a desperate attempt to figure out the key of the piece. Nothing. All that echoed back at me was the sound of an amateur. Quickly, I shut off my keyboard and tossed my music book back on the shelf.

I consulted with my sister Lisa about whether I should quit piano. Lisa is my only sibling and she is seven years older. She tried her best to convince me that I was indeed a fantastic pianist. When I insisted that I was not, Lisa suggested that I join my school’s chorus, as I greatly enjoy singing for fun. I quickly rebutted her, “I am an even more terrible singer than I am a pianist!” As much as Lisa tried to help me, she could not, because I’d convinced myself to accept the negative thoughts.

Every time that I tried to practice that particular piece of music, those negative thoughts swam through my mind. I could not ignore them or take a detour. I was forced to sit and listen to the hate-filled remarks of my own consciousness: Linda, you are an absolute amateur. Give up. You will never make it.

More to Life

Then, one summer evening, I had an awakening. I was half-heartedly reading through a long list of SAT vocabulary words when I began to feel a bit tired. As a pick-me-up, I turned my mp3 player on shuffle. The first song through my headphones offered great advice from my musical idol, John Lennon: “Life is very short and there’s no time for fussing and fighting my friend…”

This Beatles song, “We Can Work It Out,” provided me with just the reassurance I needed. I took from the song a meaning all my own. I realized that the tyranny of the race for excellence is simply not worth it because it makes a sense of fulfillment impossible. There is more to life than faultlessness. As a matter of fact, it is our imperfections that are most admirable, for they differentiate us from each other.

Suddenly, I realized how much I had changed in such a short amount of time. In the 8th grade, I earned the title “Grunge Girl” after donning a ratty knit cap on an indoor field trip in the midst of spring. Though at that time I did not think highly of my intelligence, I did possess a very admirable quality: I did not take life too seriously. I felt that I had nothing to lose.

Accepting Myself

Since that day, I realize that I must find a balance between striving to achieve and living in the present. Often, I listen to my 8th grade playlist of 90s bands like Rancid and Nirvana, for it brings back fond memories of my once carefree attitude. Listening to this music helps to relax me because it reassures me that there is more to life than whatever it is that’s stirring up anxiety at this particular moment. At the same time, I must pay mind to the long road ahead of me, because I believe that I have the potential for a very bright future.

But it’s also important to accept where I am on that road. In the past, I never followed through with any of my hobbies except for my personal journaling, which I accepted as imperfect. In all other areas, I would simply give up if I could not achieve perfection. I’m trying to change this and be more open to imperfection and failure, in all areas of my life. It’s not so easy. I can “intellectually” accept that I am not perfect. However, I still struggle with the desire for perfection each and every day. Although this can act as a motivator, it is often paralyzing and stands in my way.

In school, I constantly reassure myself that it’s OK if I don’t excel in every subject. Whenever I feel incompetent, I try to remember my strengths, not only in academics, but in my character.

It takes a conscious effort to stop the cycling thoughts of incompetence and self-doubt. Every time I play the piano, I have to try to block them out because playing the piano requires all of my focus and attention, and I cannot afford to get distracted. From time to time, my mind slips away and I begin to feel disappointed in myself and frustrated with my lack of progress. I have to concentrate solely on the music on the page and not worry about anything else.

Now, when I play the piano, I replace negative thoughts with positive affirmations. Even when I feel that I am struggling with a particular piece, I personally congratulate myself whenever I am able to hit the right note or play the correct chord. I remind myself that in time, the piece will become easier for me to play.

One thing is for sure: Making music has provided me with a sense of gratification that I never felt before. It has provided me with an outlet and sense of accomplishment. It’s a reminder that there’s more to life than being perfect. I always try to reassure myself that, as a pianist, I am moving at a pace that is best for me. There is no rush. I have my whole life to progress. If I genuinely enjoy playing the piano, then why should I worry about perfection?

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(NYC-2012-03-12)

NYC231 cover image See all stories from issue #231, March/April 2012

[SUBSCRIBE NOW]
RK-YD image Get great stories in 'Teen Success Library'
ISBN: 9781935552017
[BUY NOW]
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