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Look for Progress, Not Perfection



“Practice makes perfect” is a ubiquitous phrase in the world of music. Whether we hear it from our teachers, our musical heroes, or our peers, the intention behind it is a good one: to emphasize the important work that goes into becoming great at our craft. But anyone who suffers from perfectionism understands how reaching for “perfect” can end up being unhelpful and unproductive. Instead, measuring our progress will better reflect how we’re doing, and is more conducive to long-term growth and satisfaction.


Learning music is a messy process, with many criss-crossing steps from the point where we start to the point where we’re proficient. When our focus is only on perfection, we end up looking for the finished product too soon—a polished performance or song we’re not yet able to give or create. This can leave us feeling disappointed, discouraged, and possibly even like we’re destined for failure. Emphasizing our progress, on the other hand, allows us to shine a light on our incremental successes as we improve a little bit each day. Acknowledging these improvements, no matter how slight, will help encourage us to keep coming back to our music work.


If you’ve never considered tracking your progress in this way before, you may not be sure where to start. There are some more obvious areas you can measure first, such as playing the correct chords of a song in the right order, or playing an exercise or solo closer to the final tempo. Over time, you’ll begin to notice areas of improvement that are harder to spot. This might include how comfortable something feels to play, how much faster you remember a set of chord changes, how much more dynamic your soloing is, or how you’ve improved your ability to structure a compelling piece of music.


Consider keeping a journal where you track these improvements. It will be encouraging for you to see just how often you’re making progress, and can also give you a much needed boost when you’re feeling discouraged about your current abilities. Looking back and seeing clear evidence of your previous successes will bolster your confidence, allowing you to face new challenges.


While having high standards for our playing, performing, and musical output is a wonderful thing, aiming for perfection can hold us back. There are many signs along our journey to let us know we’re on the right track, if we look for them. Adopt the mantra “practice makes progress”; scanning for any improvements you notice in your musicianship and artistry, no matter how small. These frequent victories will give you many chances to celebrate, and will make it easier, and more fulfilling, to stay the course.


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