I don’t know if there’s some sort of composer’s handbook which says that concertos should start out with a technical challenge to mess with you when you’re the most nervous and shaky, but whether it’s a bunch of octaves in a row, a series of consecutive 10th’s, or a ginormous shift to a really high note, many concertos do make it challenging to create a great first impression.
Such was the case for Joshua Bell, as he performed Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole at the 1980 Stulberg International String Competition.
Being only 12 years old at the time, and in his first competition to boot, he totally messed up the opening – in his words, “worse than I ever could have imagined.”
However, despite making a less than stellar first impression, he managed to recover – and ended up winning third prize that year.
Whether it’s recovering from a rough start to a competition, or bouncing back from a subpar excerpt in an audition, how does one become more the kind of person who is capable of winning an audience back, rather than losing them as things spiral downhill?
Two types of perfectionism
Well, there are a number of factors involved in this kind of resilience under pressure, but a Canadian research team was curious to see how perfectionism might affect one’s performance after experiencing failure (Lizmore, Dunn, Dunn, & Hill, 2019).
Because as it turns out, perfectionism is actually a little more interesting and complex than you might think.
Well, researchers have found that there are aspects of perfectionism that are pretty clearly negative and detrimental to performance and mental health. But that there are also aspects that could potentially be useful or “positive.”
The “bad” kind of perfectionism
For instance, “perfectionistic concerns” is the dark side of perfectionism. This is where you worry constantly about messing up, or are afraid people will lose respect for you if you don’t play perfectly, or are always getting down on yourself for failing to live up to the impossibly high standards you’ve set for yourself.
Sometimes known as “failure-avoiding perfectionism,” this is the type of perfectionism that tends to lead to burnout, anxiety, depression, fear of failure, and a lack of motivation.
“good” maybe-not-completely-horrible kind of perfectionism
The more adaptive or useful aspect of perfectionism is known as “perfectionistic strivings.” This is where you set very high (but not unattainable!) performance standards, and do your best to find ways of reaching the bar you’ve set for yourself.
Sometimes known as “excellence-seeking perfectionism,” this tends to be associated with greater intrinsic motivation, and being more concerned with mastering a skill than winning or being better than other people.
It’s not like people are purely one type of perfectionist or the other, as we all tend to have some aspects of both, but the researchers wondered if athletes’ ability to bounce back from performing poorly might depend on what kind of perfectionist they are.
A putting competition
They recruited 99 collegiate varsity-level athletes, and organized a putting competition with a bit of money at stake.
When the participants came to the lab, they completed a perfectionism assessment, followed by two practice putts.
And then it was time to compete, one-on-one against a competitor, by taking 10 putts from a variety of distances away from a target.
The putting surface was set up so that they could see their competitor, but couldn’t see how well they were doing. Which is important because their competitor was actually one of the research assistants and totally in on the deception.
Wait – what deception, you ask?
To create the illusion of failure, no matter how well or poorly the participant did on the putting challenge, when the scores were added up and posted on the scoreboard, the researchers always gave the fake competitor a score that was 17% better than the participant’s.
That way the real participant was always guaranteed to “lose” the first round to their competitor. Not by so much that it wasn’t possible to make up the difference in the second round of putts and win the competition, but just enough that they’d experience a bit of pressure to up their game.
And then they performed a second round of 10 putts.
So…which type of perfectionists bounced back from “failure” and performed most effectively in the second round?
Well, the results suggest that there is actually an interesting interaction of the two types of perfectionism that seems to be associated with better performance.
What does that mean, exactly?
So the athletes who had high standards of excellence but were NOT especially concerned with avoiding failure tended to perform better after learning that they lost the first round.
But the athletes who had high standards of excellence and WERE very much concerned with messing up, tended to perform worse after learning they had failed in the first round.
So what are we to do with this?
The authors suggest that the answer isn’t to lower your standards, per se, but to expect and accept failure as “natural/inevitable parts of the performance process.”
In other words, to accept that no performance or audition is going to be 100% perfect. And to strive not for perfection on stage, but excellence, learning to be at peace with the reality that you’ll miss a couple notes here and there. That your bow might shake a smidge. That you’ll chip a note. That your articulation will be a little muddled in spots.
And that none of these things are the end of the world, or justification for beating yourself up or throwing in the towel.
Because when you go backstage after the standing ovation, or listen to your audition tape after having been offered the job, you’ll discover that your winning performance was by no means perfect.
Pretty darn good, perhaps.
Maybe even awesome – but not perfect.
So maybe the key to redeeming yourself after a poor start is less about making some heroic effort to overcome the mistake by trying to play better than is humanly possible, but simply to play the way you play, trust that this will resonate with the listener, and refuse to get sucked into the self-critical “you-can’t-afford-to-screw-this-up” type of perfectionism that makes your performance quickly spiral to the bad place.
Or in food terms, to focus on performing in such a way that you create something “delicious, not exact” to sort-of-but-not-exactly quote chef David Chang.
Read what Joshua Bell had to say about his experience at the Stulberg competition, and the mental lesson he took away from this: Joshua Bell on Messing up His First Violin Competition
The idea for this post came from an interview Nathan Cole did on the Per Service podcast, where he talks about how first impressions are important, but aren’t everything. That it’s possible to redeem yourself after a rough start (and also possible to lose a panel after a great start).
You’ll also get a tiny sampling of what it’s like to sit behind a screen, as they play a few samples of excerpts, allowing you to compare your own thoughts and reactions to the short snippets of music with Nathan’s reactions. Listen to that episode here: Nathan Cole tells us how the L.A. Phil picks an audition winner
Lizmore, M. R., Dunn, J. G. H., Causgrove Dunn, J., & Hill, A. P. (2019). Perfectionism and performance following failure in a competitive golf-putting task. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 45, 101582. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psychsport.2019.101582