The Swerve

A Discourse on Perfectionism by Melody Q., 808

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I wrote this piece for the purpose of providing a personal statement to a school that I am applying for, but rather than making up an exaggerated story about myself to impress the admissions officers, I went with a story about my struggle with perfectionism and why we do things. Now, this may not be the best example of how perfectionism has affected me, or the most clear-cut, but it is one that has meaning to me, so I hope that someone else might be able to read this and draw inspiration to improve their own lives.
 I heard it before I saw it. Sure, it was slightly out of tune, and someone was banging on it, but it was still oh-so-familiar.
I pushed through the dense wall of students- a more daunting task than you’d think- and finally got a glimpse.
There was a piano in the cafeteria.
Now, as someone who hates to perform and whines about practicing more than I’d like to admit, the spark of joy that lit me up from the inside was intense.
And I shocked myself by pulling out the stool, sitting down, and beginning to play.
That day in September, I felt no fear as I played. The technical errors I heard in my playing meant nothing to me. The voice in my head didn’t nitpick at me, I didn’t second-guess myself, I didn’t beat myself up afterward for embarrassing myself in front of people I’d have to see every day for the rest of the 8th grade. I felt proud.
As a classically trained pianist for 7 years, I’ve seen many performances and even given some myself. Among some of my greatest feats of courage are competing in international competitions, and even performing at Carnegie Hall-twice! My performances will never be perfect, and I’ve never heard a perfect performance, even at the most renowned music venues. A performance does not need to be perfect to be beautiful, or haunting, or to steal my breath away.
But, I am a perfectionist. My desire to make everything perfect- from my art to my grades (I get disappointed at 98s sometimes) to my writing extends to my music as well. Every time I get up during a studio class to perform, with every wrong note my self-esteem and confidence crumbles, my urge to blame myself grows. I tell myself I didn’t practice enough, I didn’t spend enough time on a certain passage, I got distracted with other thoughts. “I’m not good enough.” When my assistant principal asked me to perform in the talent show, I declined because I thought I hadn’t practiced it enough for it to be flawless; which is illogical, because you can’t make a performance flawless- it goes against the very nature of performing. Someone will always take issue with your interpretation, or your body language, or even your choice of clothes. My perfectionism has found its way into every aspect of my life.
But when I play in front of my friends, in front of my teachers and the lunch aids in the cafeteria, all the stigma of performance seems to melt away. I let myself make mistakes and move on. I breathe life into my music rather than criticizing myself for every scratch and dropped note I catch. I smile.
Why did I decide to play in the cafeteria that day? It wasn’t the fleeting satisfaction of hitting every note or having a ‘perfect’ performance. The pleasure I get from making other people happy brings me much more happiness. There’s a lot of times that bringing a smile to someone’s face has put me in a good mood, made me proud that I could do something so simple as playing the piano to make someone’s day. Like the delight I brought to a lunch aid when I played “Bohemian Rhapsody”. Or the joy I gave a new 6th grader when I played “Don’t Stop Me Now”. Even the newfound respect I earned from my friends when they told me to attempt the hardest piece I know-Liszt’s Paraphrase on Verdi’s Rigoletto, which was half-finished and riddled with technical issues, but nevertheless, fun rather than humiliating.
I still get nervous when I perform in studio classes. My hands haven’t stopped freezing over. But I know now that it’s okay. It’s not my fault, and I don’t have to be perfect for anyone- especially not for myself. I don’t want to spend my life being held back, obsessing over imperfection and missing opportunities. Perhaps one day, I’ll give a concert with the same energy and enthusiasm I have when I play in the cafeteria at school, in the game with a big smile on my face.

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