Perfectionism vs. Excellence in Guitar Practice

We all want to play well. We all have the best intentions and highest aspirations for ourselves.

But we may also realize how far we are from what we define as “good” or “right”. And how we deal with this awareness can make or break our daily practice sessions…

What is Perfectionism in Classical Guitar Practice?

To be a perfectionist (or act on perfectionistic tendencies) we must first be aware of an ideal. We hold this ideal, and judge our playing against it.

When we fall short (which is 99.9% of the time), we deem it a failure. Or at best, a noble effort, but still off the mark.

Faced with this perceived failure, we continue to work doggedly. We focus on what is still missing or wrong.

The problem with this is that it leads to frustration and demotivation. Perfectionism also leads to feelings of stagnation and inertia.

With a perfectionistic mindset, guitar practice may not be much fun.

Beware Unrealistic Expectations

One of the fallacies leading to perfectionism is that perfection is indeed possible. And more, possible for us, at this time, using the practice methods we are currently using.

And this is unrealistic. Perfectionism is usually governed by unrealistic expectations.

These set us up for disheartening failures on a daily basis. Nothing is ever good enough, because “good enough” has not been defined. Or if defined, is not possible.

What is Excellence in Classical Guitar Practice?

Conversely, we can strive for excellence in guitar practice. Excellence is different than perfectionism in key ways.

To strive for excellence means to focus on the process. In each moment, we gauge success by our level of attention and focus. We hold standards, and strive to meet them. We challenge ourselves, and meet those challenges.

Excellence is attainable at any level, from beginner to advanced. We can achieve it in any one single practice. It only happens in real time, as we decide to use our minds an bodies as best we can.

Perfectionism is a Black Hole – Unattainable and Deadly

Perfection is like a horizon: as we near it, it moves further into the distance. We can never reach it. How we define “perfection” will change as our abilities and musical understanding grow.

That means if this is our measure of success, we will never feel successful.

Over time, this drains our energy and sucks the joy out of our music practice. Eventually, we quit.

Excellence Includes Both Objectivity and Forgiveness

But when we use excellence as a gauge of success, we are empowered. We have the ability, with each new day and each new practice, to reach it.

Our definitions of excellence can change depending on our circumstances. If we are sick, or busy, or injured, we can alter the definition and still enjoy a successful practice.

Excellence encourages us to stay objective and self-aware. We’re called to be honest with ourselves. And if we fall short for the day, we can forgive ourselves and vow to try again tomorrow. Because we start fresh each day, we can adjust our expectations and set ourselves up for success.

This breeds motivation and momentum.

Excellence leads to better results

When we focus on excellence, we take a more active role in our practice. We are more likely to experiment. We are more likely to seek creative solutions, and do the work to test them.

Over time, this leads to much better results. As we focus on process and personal engagement, we build the skills we need to advance.

Music happens one note at a time. And the pursuit of excellence operates on this same timeline.

Meanwhile, perfectionism is an all-or-nothing game. It values the total output above the note-by-note process. And as such, takes us out of the mindset that would lead to better playing.

Our power and possibility lie only and always in one note, played well. Then the next. When we seek excellence at this level, we grow and progress. We enjoy practice more, and get more from our practice time.

Allen Mathews

Hi, I’m Allen Mathews. 

I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two other stellar teachers – one focused on the technical movements, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully.
Click here for a sample formula.

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