I’ve spent my whole life performing. Performing for audiences. Performing for teachers. Performing for colleagues. Performing for leaders. And yet, I wouldn’t consider myself a natural performer.
I’m not energized by being in the spotlight — in fact, it drains me.
But, because my family is strangely drawn to suffering, at the age of 7 I decided it’d be a good idea to force myself to share my most sacred gift— my voice.
Although I don’t consider myself a natural performer, I would say I’m a natural singer. At 2, I was singing along to No Doubt’s “don’t speak,” paving the way for my moody music preferences. I’ve always been attracted to singing music that goes deep. Music that takes you to an alternate, otherworldly space. Music that’s difficult. Music that expresses the depth of human emotion. As someone who’s not ultra affectionate or emotionally expressive in public (I’m lovingly referred to as a cold fish by my family), this is my safe space. This is where I can be intimate and expressive. But that space is sacred to me, and hard to share.
Doing all the things I should
After decades of striving to become a classical singer, auditioning and being rejected, earning two degrees and doing all the things you “should” do if you want to “make it,” I hit a wall.
No matter what milestone I achieved, what group I sang in, or who I sang for, I wasn’t happy. Singing became a stressful experience, ridden with self-criticism, perfection, people pleasing, anxiety, and tension. And, despite my love for the craft and the music, I dreaded it.
Before rehearsals or performances, my jaw and neck would tense leading to chronic pain that I couldn’t seem to remedy despite the performance anxiety tools and techniques I’ve accumulated over the years. It was like my body was saying “please pause.”
And that’s what I did.
This fall, I cancelled all of my gigs to take a break from singing.
The Hidden Costs of Performance
In our American culture, performance and perfection are glorified. Parents brag about their kid’s achievements, push their kids to be lawyers and doctors and anything that is deemed as “impressive.” You get paid more when you perform well at your job. You’re praised by peers and leaders. The list goes on. It’s a culture of outdoing, outperforming and being one step ahead of the person next to you, in the hopes that maybe you’ll feel good about yourself.
But in my experience as a high performing, people-pleasing perfectionist, the more I strove and the more milestones I achieved, the worst I felt.
Because of this culture, the benefits of being world-class at something are front and center, but we often overlook the hidden costs of that pursuit. People see the performance, and not all the shit and sacrifice that’s behind the velvet curtain. People that are world-class at something go all in, often at the expense of their health and relationships.
In the classical music world, the inconsistency of concerts and pressures of time traveling, erratic working schedules (including evenings and weekends in addition to often another full time job) and chunks of time practicing and performing mean a lack of time for loved ones, family or friends. A recent review of mental health in performers showed that international musicians can go months without seeing their children.
Nobody tells you what’s going on behind the scenes. In reality, it’s full of lots of lonely people.
Was this the life I wanted to sign up for?
The Paradox of Perfection
I’m a perfectionist at baseline, and classical music reinforces my most debilitating trait.
Although many directors and performers in the field say “it’s not about perfection, perfection is impossible, it’s about excellence blah blah,” I’d argue in many ways it actually is about perfection. When I sang everything perfectly, I was praised. When I messed up, I was often scolded or rejected.
On the flip side, what makes me so addicted to the field is the pursuit of perfection, or as close as you can get to it. It’s filled with people who crave the most beautiful thing, a perfect moment, beautiful tuning of a chord… and you’re going to tell me those people wouldn’t like a performance to be perfect? I’m not buying it. Bach wrote music that evoked the perfection of God’s creation, and has sent many musicians into an admittedly thrilling tailspin in pursuit of attaining this “god-like perfection” through the mastery of his music. His music makes me feel the most alive and at the same time the most depressed. And the pursuit of perfection is at the heart of it.
As I became more immersed in the classical music world, my obsession with perfection grew more intense and began to take over my life. On one hand, I realized my pursuit of singing had been coming from a place of fear— I wasn’t preparing music for the joy of it, I was preparing it in fear that if it wasn’t perfect I’d be called out, I wouldn’t get the gig or it’d ruin my chances of getting future gigs. These are all things that have happened because of a lack of “perfection.”
But the more I strove for perfection, the tighter I got and the less perfect it was, creating a really unhelpful reinforcement of “I’m not good enough.” Awesome.
Flow vs. Perfection
Uninhibited artistic expression is dependent on flow, a psychological state of effortless focus defined by positive psychologist, Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. And perfectionism hinders this peak performance state.
In contrast to a flow state, researchers Dietrich & Stoll argue that perfectionism is extrinsically motivated as the outcome is more important than the process and fear of failure, anxiety, and self-criticism characterize the experience. Also, they explain that perfectionists have an elevated baseline activity in areas of the prefrontal cortex which needs to be downregulated for Flow to occur.
Therefore, being the best performer you can be is in direct opposition to actually being the best performer you can be. But how can you cultivate flow in a world that constantly reinforces perfection and performance? I’m realizing exploring this question will be what I commit the rest of my life to.
As I saw my relationship with my self and others becoming more fractured as a result of the anxiety and perfection cocktail, it made me take a step back and reassess: Why am I even doing this?
My health and relationships are suffering as a result of pursuing the thing that I thought would give me life.
I’m not happy. I don’t enjoy singing right now. I feel disconnected from my body. I feel disconnected from my loved ones. I don’t actually want to do it.
In addition to being driven by the fear of not being perfect, I felt debilitating pressure to audition for impressive ensembles not because I actually wanted to but because I was afraid of people’s perception of me if I didn’t “succeed” as a classical musician. I was completely extrinsically motivated, and the light of my intrinsic fire was blocked.
I was also faced with the reality that if I want to be a world-class performer, my relationships would inevitably take a hit, which got me thinking – what actually contributes to true happiness and well-being? And the research resoundingly says nurturing deep relationships is number one. Hmm. Do I want to sacrifice the number one key to a happy life just to be excellent? For what? So people can be impressed by me? So I can feel good about myself? As I and numerous philosophers have already found out, that’s not the outcome.
As long as our orientation is toward perfection or success, we will never learn about unconditional friendship with ourselves, nor will we find compassion. -Pema Chodron
My dad said something that stuck with me recently- “Success should be defined by health, not performance.”
I used to talk so much crap about people who “didn’t achieve anything” or didn’t leave home or pursue a hard career so they could spend time with family and have more space in their life. But I’m beginning to think that they’re the ones who actually have life figured out. My dad and I joke about what we call “The Merits of Mediocrity” and I believe there truly are merits, but mediocrity isn’t the right word. I don’t think doing less and being more is mediocre- it’s actually extraordinary.
I’ve found the more I focus on being and making space for the things and people that are truly life-sustaining, the more extraordinary of a performer I am in all aspects of my life.
I’ll never stop being a singer, but I’m going to focus on the being more than the doing for now.