Perfect Little Girls

Hello out there!  I’m back with some reflections on a serious topic that seems to be making the rounds in the media, the feminist climate and even in my world of teaching and performing percussion:  Anxiety and depression amongst girls and the need to be everything to everyone and in doing so, trying to be absolutely PERFECT.

I teach about 25-30 private students a week in addition to directing a drum line, performing, recording, songwriting, being a mom, wife, and caregiver to my aging mother.  I love my private students and have about 60% boy students and 30% girl students when it comes to the percussion side of things.  Wow, even that statement makes me look like an over-achiever and perfectionist…..yes I’m a very busy person.  Well, I guess I do have a “tendency” to do it all and it really hit home with me during a lesson with one of my 13 year old female students.

When I teach, I use a balance of setting high expectations, structure, sense of humor, and fun.  This student is ambitious, has goals, and was taking both piano and drums from me until she decided to concentrate more on drumming and take a break from piano for a bit.  Even with this change, this lovely, talented young lady started her last lesson in a fetal position on my studio floor.  Now before you go all “Whiplash” (the movie with the abusive music teacher) on me, there was no yelling, no throwing of chairs, or anything from me as a teacher.  I do not believe in that style of teaching or teach with fear.  I’ve had male instructors who used to yell at me, cut my self-confidence like only a mentor can if he or she uses that power in the wrong way….and I swore that I’d never be that type of teacher.  There is a difference between pushing with inspiration and pushing like an asshole bully, and I’ve had several of those types of teachers in the past.  While I found them to be harsh, I wanted to please them and be perfect for them.  This was my “I’ll show you” attitude.

Fast forward to said student on the floor of my studio.  She started the lesson that way and her mom explained that she was stressed out with all her activities and it wasn’t me or my teaching methods.  Driven young ladies seem to be particularly vulnerable to trying to achieve perfectionism.  Why isn’t anything good enough?  Although this student did a hard piano piece at her recital and is one of the only two drummers in her jazz band in middle school, and has the undying support of her mom (dad’s not in the support picture, parents divorced,  indeed I have not even met him), this young talented lady could not see herself in a positive light.  There was mention of going to a jazz festival and seeing all the other drummers and bands being better than hers, comparisons are inevitable and normal for teens.

I decided to do a different type of lesson.  Teaching music lessons is not always the mechanics of what we do as musicians, it is part counseling, mentoring, and sometimes downright therapy.  Music lessons are life lessons.  Kudos to her mom for allowing me to take her daughter aside and sit her down in and have a real chat about being striving for perfection.  Psychology Today defines perfectionism here:

“For perfectionists, life is an endless report card on accomplishments or looks. It’s a fast and enduring track to unhappiness, and perfectionism is often accompanied by depression and eating disorders. What makes perfectionism so toxic is that while those in its grip desire success, they are most focused on avoiding failure, so theirs is a negative orientation. And love isn’t a refuge; in fact, it feels way too conditional on performance. Perfection, of course, is an abstraction, an impossibility in reality, and often it leads to procrastination. There is a difference between striving for excellence and demanding perfection. The need for perfection is usually transmitted in small ways from parents to children, some as silent as a raised eyebrow over a B rather than an A.”—Psychology Today

I tell all my students they MUST make mistakes, otherwise they will not learn or grow as musicians or human beings.  As musicians, all we have to do is google inspiration or go out and see it live in professional performance.  We can also, as women, have the ingrained “lens” that we look at the world with and see defeat if we choose to look at it that way.  That is why it is important for mothers, teachers, mentors, and friends/family to guide are young ladies so that they may fail and fail better.  Take the fear away from failure.

I myself am guilty of trying to be perfect.  Perfect in my various roles in life and in my musical professional life, I strive to perfect my art and skill sets.  I continuously take advanced lessons, enroll in workshops, and simply hang out with musicians that have skills I want to learn or improve upon.  I am not untouched by the desire to be perfect in all I do and yes, it stresses me out!  I have to DROP MY EGO AT THE DOOR and learn.  Let’s support our young women to be able to do just that.  Everything from media, social peer pressure, and the historical upbringing of women to be perfect in everything we do must allow for some fantastic mistakes with room for growth!  This amazing student of mine will be fine, we talked, I showed her some amazing drummers who for sure had to screw up big and often to get where they were.  Some times my students think I’m perfect or ask “How did you get so good?”.  The answer is going boldly into my learning and messing up big time over and over until I learned.  I’m still not perfect, even though I try to balance a busy personal and professional life, blazing a trail in the field I’m in.  But even I’ve had role models, Sheila E., Cindy Blackman, Evelyn Glennie, Emanuelle Capulette, my mother, and many others that happen to be male.

I’ll leave with a short story of failure:  While getting my music degree at Lewis & Clark College, every week, all music majors were expected to perform for weekly music hour.  I had a wonderful piano teacher, Mr. Lee Fricke.  I got up to perform an advanced piano piece I thought I was ready to play.  I froze, forgot to take the proper repeats and basically made a huge fool out of myself.  I exited the stage, and went into the hall to cry.  My teacher came up to me and calmed me down.  He said one of most valuable things I pass on to my students when preparing for a performance:  “You know you’re going to make two mistakes right?….”  This, coming from a master pianist and educator took the pressure off….big time….With the knowledge that I may mess up and it’s ok, helped me work through how to recover or cover mistakes when in performance.  Mentally, it was a huge load off my psyche.  Now stop trying to be perfect and just strive for excellence and try to enjoy the ride along the way.

Till next time…René

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