The Music Major Minute : In Pursuit of Perfection

There once was a student who sang.
He practiced till perfect, but dang!
Perfection did not exist
So he crossed it off his list,
And then his twang rang with langue.
—Christi Amonson (limericks don’t necessarily rhyme)

Do you practice with hopes of perfection? I’m sorry, but that is never going to happen. Voltaire wrote, “Perfect is the enemy of good” in part because he was an artist, a linguist, and a storyteller—inspiring such operas as Tartuffe and Candide. Can you imagine a perfect story? I could tell a bedtime story to my young children one night, and they would sigh, smile, and go to sleep. The next night, after the very same story, they might throw a stuffed bunny at me and say, “Too short!” or “Tell me the real story about when you met Daddy.” This is a true story—except the part where my children smiled and went to sleep.

Singing is an art, and art is subjective. What one audience member might experience as a “perfect moment” in a performance might make someone else snooze. The connections we make when singing require an audience that is open to receive what you have to share. If that audience, teacher, or adjudicator is closed off to you, there isn’t a trick that will bring them back into the moment. You can only sing your best and hope that you share your je ne sais quoi with someone ready to receive it. I believe there is greatness in classical music, but there is no such thing as perfection. There is no rubric that would garner “perfect 10”s from all who listen to the same performance.

In a competition, for example, you may have three or more adjudicators. If one judge has sung your repertoire, they might judge more critically because they know the text and the music—or they might score more leniently because they remember the difficulties in your arias and applaud your chutzpah. Maybe you are a mezzo and all the judges happen to be men. They might be extremely happy with your sultry Carmen—or they might be daydreaming of hearing Don José’s aria. There is simply no rhyme or reason to competitions, and singers cannot expect their best to earn a prize. Hope for a prize, of course! Just do not expect it, because there is no way to know exactly what the adjudicators want.

As a young, competitive coloratura soprano, I used to think, “No one can beat a Korean baritone.” Other singers would mutter under their breath that no one could beat a soprano with endless high notes. As is the case for most accomplished singers, I won a few prizes and lost most. As an older, wiser singer that now does more adjudicating than competing, I listen to singer after singer, waiting for someone to share something meaningful.

In a recent competition I adjudicated, a baritone sang the Korngold aria “Mein Sehnen” with such a beautiful balance of delicate phrasing and a powerful, controlled tone that tears instantly began pouring down my face. I gave him my highest marks of the competition. Even still, he did not win first, second, or third place. He did win the audience favorite award, which felt like vindication to note that his exceptional performance was acknowledged.

More often than not, your favorite performance in a competition will not garner the prize. But that does not mean the winners are not exceptional. It is simply the nature of competition.

Majoring in music is tough. There is always more to learn, and you might feel as though you will never be “pitch perfect.” Well, it is time to let go of the impossible task of achieving perfection. Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, wrote:

Perfection is the death of all good things, perfection is the death of pleasure, it’s the death of productivity, it’s the death of efficiency, it’s the death of joy. Perfection is just a bludgeon that goes around murdering everything good. Somebody once said I was disingenuous for saying this, because surely I try to make my work as good as it can be. And that’s absolutely true—but there’s a really big difference between “as good as it can be” and perfection.

Remember how lucky you are to be studying music. Someone along the way has heard beauty in your voice and encouraged you and accepted you. It is imperative to remember this encouragement when the constructive criticism seems to outweigh the praise of your singing.

Practice makes perfect? No. Practice makes permissible. You must practice in order to learn your music. If you do not know your music, you cannot work to improve your technical approach. A well known teacher once said in a masterclass that if a student came to a lesson unprepared once, they would be warned that if it happened a second time, then that would be their last lesson. There are many teachers with a strict standard for preparation. In these cases, practice makes the lessons permissible.

In the pursuit of learning to sing, the best singers hold themselves to a higher standard than their teachers and coaches. That high standard cannot be perfection—it can only be preparation, which will lead to improvement. We should not expect perfection from ourselves, just as we should not compare ourselves to others. We can only be better than we were yesterday.

The notion of success is mired in the pursuit of perfection, but as W. Stephen Smith writes in The Naked Voice, “True success comes from finding and following your passion . . . success is all about the joy we attain in pursuit of our passion.” If following your passion does not bring you joy, then no amount of success will ever be enough.

The best piece of advice my own mother ever gave me was “You can have it all, but you cannot have it all at once.” Her advice freed me to pursue my education, career, love, and family. Thank you, Mom!

For most of us, the things we hope for are possible—but not on demand. Love comes when we are open to others. Opportunities come when we are prepared. We work, we train, we love, we love some more, and we commit every single day. This is not a perfect recipe for success—but since there is no such thing as perfection in humanity, at least this is a recipe that allows joy. If you chase happiness while you chase your dreams, you are bound to catch at least a little of both.

The leadership blog light-core.com features an article titled “Perfection and Performance—The Double-Edged Sword.” Author Sharon Gilmour-Glover is a business consultant with advice that applies to young singers seeking perfection. She writes:

There is a deep connection between perfection and performance. Many believe that superior performance and perfection are synonyms. They aren’t. In fact, a perfectionist mentality is one of the greatest barriers to sustaining superior performance.

And yet, perfection and performance are deeply connected. Perfectionism is actually a key ingredient of high performance. Trouble is, it’s a double-edged sword.

So what’s the difference between a perfectionist mentality and a performance mentality?

Perfectionist Mentality
Perfectionists overlook successes and focus on failures. They expect to achieve, so when they do, they don’t acknowledge it. They don’t expect and will not tolerate failure.

Performance Mentality
High performers have learned to give credit where credit is due and they relentlessly pursue improvement.

Let It Go
The way singers pursue improvement can be joyful and joy can be found where perfection cannot. Many artists expecting perfection will only be dissatisfied, and possibly depressed or regretful, because perfectionists are never satisfied. Rather, by pursuing happiness through music, there is kinship to be enjoyed with colleagues, knowledge to be gained through study, and inspiration composed into your songs. There is great value in pursuing your dreams, including achieving those dreams! As mentioned above by Gilbert, perfection is the “death of productivity.” Our creativity exists only in productivity, so it is imperative for singers to abandon any mandates of perfection and continue to create.

We human beings are imperfectly perfect. We each have our own journey with our own strengths and weaknesses. If we can let go of the perfectionist mentality, we open ourselves to artistic improvement, scholastic achievement, and the humanity of loving relationships.

The irresistible draw we feel to classical singing is uniquely and individually ours. It is my hope that by pairing philosophies about the impossibility of perfection with the pursuit of success, students of singing will work with the “performance mentality” to seek improvement. There is joy in the pursuit of success, and we can all chase happiness along the way. I wish you joy in your journey, success in your studies, and the freedom to let go of the idea of perfection.

Christi Amonson

Soprano Christi Amonson’s recent concert engagements include touring China as a soloist with Southern Arizona Symphony Orchestra, “Easy to Love” pops concert with the Sacramento Choral Society & Orchestra. Opera News described her sound as “liquid silver” after singing Nannetta with Chautauqua Opera. Amonson earned her DMA in voice and theatre under the tutelage of Grayson Hirst at the University of Arizona, where she has been an instructor. She earned her MM in Voice at the Manhattan School of Music and her BM in Music Education at the University of Idaho. In New York City, she sang with several opera companies and directed choirs for the Metropolitan Opera Guild’s Urban Voices Program. She is currently assistant professor of voice at Troy University.