I was talking with a fellow drummer yesterday about what she called the “potent combo” of being a drummer and a perfectionist. She’s glad she’s continued to stick with the drums, but, “As a perfectionist who's also pretty impatient..it gets frustrating…I tend to give up on things that don't come to me naturally…In the passions I truly love I am more apt to evaluate my weaknesses [as opposed to my strengths].”
What she wrote struck a chord with me because perfectionism is something I’ve been examining in my own life, especially when it comes to drumming.
Research shows perfectionism disproportionately affects women. A Time magazine article titled “It’s Not You, It’s Science: How Perfectionism Holds Women Back“ says: “Women are more likely than men to be perfectionists, holding themselves back..until they’re absolutely 100 percent sure they can predict the outcome.” For example, women applied for a promotion only when they met 100 percent of the qualifications. Men applied when they met 50 percent. (Interesting aside: I completed an online business school last year where one of my assignments was to interview my current drum students to find commonalities. The ONE thing they, and I, all had in common besides being women? Perfectionism.)
In retrospect, I can see I’ve had insecurities around drumming for most of my life. Even with a pro career and international touring, I had this nagging belief that somehow I just didn’t have what it took to be really great. Like there was some inherent limitation I would never be able to overcome.
Looking that fear square in the face, I enrolled in Berklee College of Music’s online Drum Performance program to finally get some formal training. The program was amazing. But it required I upload video of myself playing every week as assignments for my instructors. This meant that to get a song and performance right, I might record myself twenty or thirty times depending on the level of difficulty. A humbling process, to put it mildly.
Indispensable to me during that time was the classic book The Inner Game of Tennis by W. Timothy Gallwey. While it’s ostensibly about tennis, his general approach of “non-judgemental observation” is a necessity for learning any new skill: Observe your action without judging whether it's good or bad, and without replaying old beliefs like “I can’t do this” and “I’m not good enough”.
For most of us, critical self-talk is constant. When we’re learning a new physical skill especially, we tend to give ourselves harsh internal instructions to carry out the action, then a stream of beratements if and when the “correct” result isn’t achieved. For me, recording myself playing every week meant I had to put aside my old storylines of never being good enough so that I could observe my performance, critique what I wanted to change, and then play and record the assignment however many times it took to get it right. It meant that in addition to the difficulty of playing the actual class material, setting aside my judgments while watching my videos was almost as much work.
In the end, my timing and overall playing improved tenfold just from the simple act of observing and recording myself. Through Berklee’s program I realized that the only limitation I had as a drummer was that I’d never been taught. I’d never studied. There was nothing wrong with me, I just needed to learn and practice. It might take a long time, but I do have it in me to be a great drummer — just as everyone does.
Fast forward to now: I still struggle with perfectionism. And I still struggle with recording videos (let alone putting them online!). But, I have a sign on my drums now that says “Expressing, not proving”. It’s a reminder that the essence of playing an instrument is pure individual expression. It’s literally what being an artist is. And as drummers, we are artists.
So, if you are struggling with perfectionism as a drummer, remember that we ALL struggle with these feelings, every one of us. And, remember too: You started playing for the sheer joy of PLAYING itself. Not to any end, not for any outcome. You did it because you loved it. So, why stop now?
I’ll end with this amazing quote from The Inner Game of Tennis: