Category Archives: Master Performing

Perfectionism, Acceptance, and Self-Compassion in the Performing Arts

In my work both as a performer and a coach, nowadays I am encountering more and more the topics of perfectionism, acceptance, and self-compassion in preparation and in performance.

These terms are useful ones to explore; they’re valid terms which definitely have relevance to those in pursuit of peak performance. That said, they have the hallmarks of ‘buzz-words’; they’re sometimes thrown about colloquially while not being very well defined or explained, and are often used a bit out of context. I have observed that sometimes, when performing artists misinterpret these terms and mis-apply those interpretations to their own craft, the result can be worse performances, not better ones. I’d like to help clear this up.

Since I like drawing pretty pictures, let’s add some here:

There are some approaches to well-being and balance that sound really beautiful…


… but are awfully hard for a performing artist to integrate into their pursuit of delivering a finely-honed craft. How about this?



Or this?


This blog trilogy will aim to address some of the dissonance that performing artists experience in their quest for high-level performance:



We’ll hear from Evelyn Hart, former Prima Ballerina of Canada’s Royal Winnipeg Ballet on perfectionism. She oughta know!

We’ll talk about when good is good enough, and when it’s not.

We’ll pull from the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, a reference of psychological diagnoses). We’ll define perfectionism and explore when it is debilitating… and when its not.

We’ll define and demystify the term “acceptance” – and you will probably be re-assured to learn that this does -not- entail anyone telling you that you’re supposed to love it when you suck. (We all suck sometimes, and there are few things more annoying than being told to embrace your suckitude when you’ve just crashed at a performance. Sucking sucks. Let’s not pretend otherwise.)

Finally, we’ll talk about self-compassion, and how this is a very useful complement to what I am going to label “Productive Perfectionism”.

At the end of it, I hope you’ll go into your preparation and practice with a renewed sense of curiosity, commitment, and yes, attention to detail.

Stay tuned! Part 1 in the trilogy is coming this week! (You can re-visit this page on your own time, or you can click here to subscribe.)


Coming up in Boston, 7-11 August: Optimal Artist 5-day intensive program. Scholarships available.


Defining Optimal Performance

Nowadays these terms are all a-buzz in the performing arts.

What does all of this really mean?

I’m not going to go all Merriam-Webster on you. I’m just going to draw you some pretty pictures and put a few concepts into my own words.

Firstly, optimal performance:

It’s important to note that optimal performance is not absolute. It’s more subjective, more about the individual and whether they rise to their own capabilities.

A 5-year old’s Royal Conservatory of Music Grade 1 coconut shell performance exam is going to be quite different from oh, say, Yo-Yo Ma playing Bach cello suites.

Sure, one of them is better than the other on an absolute scale; but when we’re talking about mental skills, peak performance, and the pursuit of excellence, it is one’s own optimal performance that we’re really after.

(Pursuit of excellence on an absolute scale is another topic, which I’ll explore in another post on preparation.)

And now, sub-optimal performance:


Yep. Sub-optimal performance encompasses that whole great range, everything from this:

To this:

…plus everything in between.


Now, for stage fright and performance anxiety. The terms are more or less interchangeable. In my coaching practice I find that more actors use the term ‘stage fright’, and more musicians use the terms ‘performance anxiety’. Why? I don’t know. Maybe musicians don’t want to admit being afraid and actors don’t want to admit to anxiety? I’ll give a free café au lait to whoever comes up with the best explanation. 🙂

Stage fright/performance anxiety exists across the whole continuum of sub-optimal performance. Somewhere around where the alligators hang out is one of the least fun places to be, but feeling scattered, unfocused, or just plain ‘meh’ about a performance is no great feeling, either.

What does all of this mean?

It means that just because you don’t pull rabbits out of your hat every single time, doesn’t mean that you deserve to be eaten by lions and alligators. Similarly, just because you sometimes feel as though your artistry is alligator food, it doesn’t mean that you are not capable of delivering something further up the continuum towards your optimal performance.

It means that those moments where you wish for the trap door to open, the performances where you just delivered a greyscale image of your own artistry, and the performances where you were really quite good but didn’t deliver your ace-most self, are all made of the same stuff.

Where and when do you slip from technicolour to greyscale, and from meh to alligator food? How can you pull those meh moments up in to a higher spot on the continuum, until you can reach a point of consistent optimal delivery of your stuff? That’s where mental skills come in. Next time I’ll explore a definition of mental skills, and will also talk about excellence in preparation.

Thanks for reading.

Click here for workshop listings, including a 5-day intensive Optimal Artist session in Boston in August, 2017


Burnout is a real challenge for athletes and performers. Sports Psychology practitioners and coaches discuss it a great deal, but in the performing arts, we don’t talk about it nearly enough. It is hard for artists to recognize when they need a recharge, or when they’re well and truly finished with the pursuit.

I came across this post  on a trumpet blog recently, and I think it is a wonderful opening to a dialogue about exhaustion, burnout, boredom, finding perspective, re-kindling intrinsic motivation, and all that good stuff.

What do you think?

Your Big Break

Who has never gone through the day with a cloud of Must-Practice anxiety and Oof, Don’t-Want-To avoidance hovering, only to tuck themselves into bed at night wrapped in a blanket of Gack-I-Will-Tomorrow,-Really guilt? After all, if I were halfway serious about my pursuit to be the top Coconut Shellist in The Universe, surely I would have practiced today until my fingers bled, rather than having had brunch with my friend, a visit with my elderly neighbor, and a good scrub of the bathroom sink and tiles with my old toothbrush. Right? Actually, wrong! 🙂

What would your reaction be if I told you that one of the top musicians in North America puts their instrument on a shelf for a whole month each year? Yes. This musician is a principal chair player in a Top 5 Orchestra, and each year, puts the instrument away. Fully, solidly, away, for a Whole. Entire. Month.

To many who aspire to reach the top, this seems inconceivable. We are conditioned—often by our imaginations—to think that to be serious about our craft, we never take days off. The truth is, we could not be more wrong.

Performing artists find it very difficult to separate Who They Are from What They Do. We’re conditioned to think that to be a serious artiste, we need to eat, sleep, and breathe our craft. Filled with grey areas and fine lines, this is a topic that makes for great fireside debate. After all, few dentists are so passionate about their craft that they sit in carpools and tear apart the latest… um… left-hand root canal drill technique as seen on the You Tube Dental Channel? How about accountants; they’re as driven towards perfectionism as anyone, I’ve never known one to study the book-keeping logging technique of dozens of other accountants, seeking the perfect way to craft a column, or to go out for a drink after a long day of tax-filing and rave about how gorgeously the expense rows lined up today. The truth is that being a performing artist –is– special, and comes with an exceptionally high intrinsic motivational factor that goes hand-in-hand with our identities. It’s far more than “just a job”. In fact, as a mentor once said to a training orchestra, “The day it becomes a job? That’s the day you quit.”

As performing artists, we have a special and vested interest in our craft. It does define a large part of who we are, and we do approach it with a sense of pursuit more intense than most other professions. To set that passionate pursuit aside, whether for a day each week, or for a month each year, can open up self-doubt and self-questioning. See opening paragraph. We’ve all been there.

How can we strike a balance?

The second most productive thing we can do for our minds and our bodies is to Take A Break. That said, as you well know, the Day-Off-By-Default-Because-I-Procrastinated doesn’t achieve much in terms of recalibration. This leads me to the first most productive thing we can do: Declare it Beforehand!

Now, here is your assignment, should you choose to accept it 🙂 :

1) Declare Your Break. The nature and magnitude of your break will be for you to decide. If you have a recital next week, then you may declare your break to be an afternoon with a magazine and a hot chocolate, or an hour brushing your neighbour’s dog. If you’ve just completed an eight-month tour and your next booking is in June, you might declare your break to be two weeks of intensively examining the insides of your eyelids while surrounded in pillows, or being a house-potato. Whatever you choose as your break, be sure to name it. Decide it. Declare it. Own that puppy.

2) Take That Break. Take it without apology, and without guilt. You are the World Expert on You, and if you have declared this break, chances are you will benefit from it. Take it. Love it. Savour it.

If you find yourself having guilty feelings about your break, try writing it in the 3rd-person format. Here is an example of what you might write if you were Shelly, who is feeling overwhelmed in the face of an important audition right around the corner: “Shelly has an audition next week for the Principal Coconut Shell position with the Big Time Philharmonic; having practiced 8 hours a day for the past 11 weeks, Shelly has declared that this afternoon will be dedicated to alphabetizing the sock drawer and polishing a 1920’s typewriter. Shelly is looking forward to this mental unplug, and tomorrow, those coconut shell excerpts are going to sound fresher than ever.” 

Writing/speaking of yourself in the 3rd person is a good way to get a better perspective, and to be kinder to yourself. Perhaps more on that in a future post, but for now? Go take your break. I’m pretty sure you’re earned it.



*If you took a significant break (1 week, 1 month, or longer), then I recommend a re-integration-into-practice routine such as the one described by cellist Janet Horvath in her book, Playing Less Hurt. Although written by a string player, her routine works very well even for non-string players and singers. You can modify it to suit your own situation; it makes a terrific template.

A Goal Without A Plan Is Just A Wish.

Following is a story from a friend who recently had the privilege of hearing a remarkable Olympian speak. Her dedication is something from which all musicians can be inspired. It is a long post, but it is worth the read.


Alisa Camplin is Australia’s first female winter Olympics gold medalist, winning in arial skiing at Salt Lake City in 2002. She won eight years after deciding, at age 19, to learn how to ski for the exact purpose of becoming an Olympian arial skier. It was incredible to hear how disciplined and dedicated she was to making her Olympic dream come true.

For instance, for three years of those eight years she rose at 4:45am and completed training before working 8am-6:30pm at IBM and then either 7pm-10pm coaching gymnasts, or 7pm-1am delivering pizza. Her weekends were either more work, or training, or both.
In summer training she realised that the women were averaging 15-20 runs a day, while the men were averaging 30. She stopped taking the training bus to practice and would cycle there early instead so that she could start straight away and be the last person to finish. She averaged 38 runs per day.

Her injuries have been extensive; 6 concussions, broke her sternum twice, dislocated shoulders, broken clavicle, 6 ribs broken 8 times, plus more, including having her second knee reconstruction a few months before she took bronze at the 2006 Olympics.

Besides her dedication, what stood out was her planning and her attention to detail. When she first met with Australia’s arial skiing head coach at age 19, she found out that there were seven key components needed to succeed at the sport: skiing; acrobats; physical conditioning; mental skills; experience; team/coaching/support; and finances. The current Australian champion—who had placed eighth at the Olympics—scored a 65 out of 70, according to the coach. Alisa got him to rank her, too. She scored a 5/70. So they developed a plan to get her to 65/70 by year seven, breaking down each year’s goals into clear steps.

Alisa left nothing to chance. She rigorously tested different foods, drinks, and music to identify the ones that were best for her blood sugar levels and best prepared her to compete. She had the same breakfast for five years straight.

Alisa had contingency plans for everything. She was so good at making use of her time during bad weather delays that she eventually preferred it because it gave her a competitive advantage. A photo of her on the hill under an umbrella is one of her favourites, because that day every other competitor was getting wet in the rain, as she was the only one who had thought to pack an umbrella.

A year in advance of the Olympics, she realised she wasn’t consistent enough in her performance, which she determined was because of two things: her own mental doubts and her coach being so upset about scoring changes that he no longer thought the team could perform well enough to win. So she organised a sports psychologist to work with her, and a technical coach who believed in her ability to win. She did affirmations, trigger-and-response plans, took up meditation and visualisation and became her ‘own greatest cheerleader’. She focused on keeping things positive in her bubble, and following the right processes. Anything that wasn’t positive was pushed out. As a result, she became a consistent performer.

Because they didn’t know if she’d be able to sleep before her big day at the Olympics, she had days where she purposely trained on no sleep. In case anything went wrong with her coach she had a backup coach who was trained and tested to know exactly how to step into her coach’s place. Then, six weeks before the Olympics, she broke both her ankles. So 5.5 weeks of her preparation was entirely mental—visualising her performance. And she took gold.

Alisa noted that her drivers changed over time, but there were always things drawing her forward, keeping her committed and willing to make sacrifices. Sometimes it was to prove the naysayers wrong. Other times, it was to represent Australia. On the day, it was mostly about proving to herself that she could do it, and succeed for her team.

She has taken a similar approach to her professional career—a lot of planning, very driven—and is a top executive with IBM. After her infant son died due to congenital heart problems, she established a foundation that has raised millions for cardiac research and equipment, some of which was used when her daughter was born with a hole in her heart that healed over after birth.

She is a remarkable person.

The big thing with sessions like that is what to take away from it and apply. There were a few things she said that aren’t new but are worth reflecting on, such as…

  • A goal without a plan is a wish.
  • You can fake passion (as she had with marathon running, her original plan for an Olympic sport), but it won’t stick.
  • Goals need to be personally important.
  • Ask self “Why do I want to do this?” Ask self again. And again. And again. Knowing and connecting with the layers feeds your dedication.
  • Ask, “Am I working hard enough when no one else is watching?”
  • Focus on the process—what you can control and achieve—not the outcomes.


A Note On The Perfect Wrong Note

I recently listened to an interview with William Westney.

The describes William Westney as “…a concert pianist, professor and artist-in-residence at Texas Tech University & the author of ‘The Perfect Wrong Note’ a book about – as the subtitle says – ‘rediscovering your musical self’.”

The interview is approximately 52 minutes long, so if you do not have time to listen to it, then I have cherry-picked for you my favourite nugget! Here it is (at 25:44, if you want to listen to it):

“How can everything that I’m doing feel great?”

At that moment, he is speaking about what attitude he takes into the practice room.

That is  a winning attitude if ever I did hear one. What I take away from this is not a pursuit of self-indulgence, but rather a firm commitment to the art and to the craft, constantly making connections among body, mind, and instrument. I take from this a commitment to play with such connection and dedication that we’re not just playing the right notes in tune, but that we are connecting with our full mental focus and physiological engagement.

There’s another one in there too which of course is nothing new, but always nice to be reminded, “We wouldn’t be doing this if we didn’t love the music.”

Hear, hear. 🙂