Effective Practices for Dealing with Perfectionistic Students & Lockdown

By Emese Hruska — May 1, 2022

Music performance is an exacting activity. Classical music education has evolved such that highly precise and technically flawless performances are the norm. For these reasons, it is not surprising that many music teachers and their students experience some kind of perfectionism. In fact, researchers found perfectionism and performance anxiety increasing by gaining experience in music.

The need for reconciling perfectionistic tendencies

Perfectionism is categorized into two major dimensions: facilitative perfectionism that has positive attributes, and debilitative perfectionism that is associated with negative consequences. However, in everyday life, we tend to interpret perfectionism as negative. Research defines perfectionism as the predisposition toward unrealistically high demands and expectations, severe self-criticism, and concern or intolerance for mistakes.

Perfectionism pushes young musicians to set unachievable goals and to develop poor coping strategies, such as avoiding practice – which in turn may increase stage fright! This usually happens when music students are highly self-critical, ruminate over their mistakes which makes them to anticipate diminished performances because of the feeling that they cannot live up to their standards of perfection. You may think that music performers’ performance anxiety is due to fearing the audience’s reactions, however, research suggests that it originates from the fear of making mistakes.

Teachers must have come across with this experience in their practice. When I was teaching violin in London whilst working for my PhD, many of my students were perfectionistic and struggled with low self-esteem. Attitudes of typically perfectionistic music students:

  • Shy and anxious to play through the homework material because of the fear of making mistakes
  • Expecting to acquire a new technique after the first attempt
  • Feeling frustrated and label themselves negatively when unable to accomplish a new task immediately
  • Dissatisfaction with their standard of playing which others see as acceptable
  • Experiencing disturbing thoughts and feelings when playing
Source: The Kodály Music Education Institute of Australia New South Wales Branch Inc.

The most important thing to understand about perfectionism:
It is anxiety.

To reduce this anxiety, you can help students to set realistic goals and develop self-regulation skills. And to overcome perfectionism and become less anxious, they have to learn to stick to a plan and control their emotions.

The following methods can help students to become confident, effective music learners:

1. The brain is a ‘little monkey’
In trying to reduce your students’ perfectionism, first of all, bring it to their attention that learning and practising is about training the body and mind to work together. The brain is a ‘little monkey’ which has to be told what to do, how to do it; also that it needs a generous amount of time and opportunity to accommodate itself to completing new tasks. This means that students should understand that learning, thus developing musical and performing skills are the result of a long process in which their brain and body become ‘best friends’ to collaborate with each other all the time.

This metaphor can help students to realize mistakes which happen due to (yet) under-developed connections in their nervous system. This also means that they should not take their mistakes personally. Therefore, justify that mistakes are not about them (not their talent and inborn ability) but about the connection established between their body and the ‘little monkey’.

After I explained this to my students, they had a positive shock and said “Miss, this way it is so easy to play the violin!”. After this recognition, they were able to take off the pressure from themselves, and stopped feeling ashamed for their mistakes which in turn would ruin their confidence and self-esteem.

2. It is Okay to Make Mistakes
Ask your students to help you make a list to answer the question above. This exercise supports students to become calmer about getting things wrong. You can start with giving them prompts:

  • Mistakes are our friends as they help us finding the right way of playing
  • Everyone makes mistakes, including world famous musicians
  • Getting things wrong means that we are already skilled enough to recognize flaws (Complete beginners don’t hear as much as older students)
  • When you practise, it is inevitable to make mistakes. All accomplished musicians developed through learning from their mistakes
Sample questions using Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

4. Widen students’ selective attention

Negative perfectionists tend to notice only the negative, discounting the positive. Encourage and praise students making constructive criticism about their own playing in which they point out the positives, and in the same time they detail those parts that need further work. Encourage them to ask questions about what to do in order to solve the problem in the piece.

In case they find it difficult, you can show them possible solutions using strategies from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). It is a type of psychotherapeutic treatment that helps people learn how to identify and change destructive or disturbing thought patterns that have a negative influence on behaviour and emotions. In this article below, you can find sample sentences to apply alleviating different symptoms of perfectionistic music students. (If you are interested in CBT, check out the section on recommended books at the bottom of page)

5. Provide plenty of opportunities for public performances

We know from peak athletes’ competition routine evolves by enrolling as many competitions as possible – both at low and high stake. The Hungarian swimmer, Katinka Hosszu who is currently a world record holder in numerous swimming styles, was entered into nearly all possible swimming competitions across the world at the beginning of her career. Her coach believed that this way she would gain a considerate amount of experience at swimming championships which makes her develop the necessary mental and physical skills to compete under enormous amount of pressure.

6. ...and a little extra: Enhance students’  sense of control

The sense of control is inevitably related to perfectionism – but in an opposite direction. Those who have facilitative (healthy) perfectionism feel that they own the ability to control their activities such as trying and acquiring a new technical skill or giving a public performance. However, those music students who are highly perfectionistic and fear making mistakes during practising or at performances, are those little musicians who would question their calibre to be able to handle the situation with full competence.

The sense of control can also be linked with students’ self-efficacy. In music education and performance, self-efficacy generally refers to musicians’ belief in themselves to learn specific skills and difficult repertoires as well as performing well. In fact, music students who have greater self-efficacy, give better performances and are more successful at music examinations. In contrast, researchers found that perfectionistic music students had significantly lower levels of self-efficacy!

Teacher burnout

I am writing this article in the heart of Europe, Hungary, where currently we are facing the fourth wave of COVID-19. Also, I am aware that Australia has been in lockdown, teaching online, or that no singing or wind instruments were allowed in schools. Understandably, such restrictions can contribute to teacher stress. An extensive amount of research was conducted about the coronavirus pandemic context that touched upon teacher burnout, too.

For instance, a recent study found that those school teachers were under low risk of burnout who experienced positive emotions in general and practised better self-control. In other words, teachers who are able to perceive and express emotions freely, show empathy, build good relationships and can handle their emotions, impulsiveness and stressful feelings, therefore are more protected against burnout symptoms.

Meanwhile, if you found yourself to have experienced the opposite, it does not mean that you fulfil the clinical criteria of being burned out, but that you have an increased risk of developing it. The findings of study I cited above highlights how much our emotional resources matter because they help us to cope with adverse challenges. So, I encourage you not to keep your emotions to yourself but to talk freely about your feelings and needs, also listen to others’ stories, and always remember that you are not alone in overcoming burdens of the COVID-situation!

To reduce stress, I would like to suggest an excellent book about a highly successful method developed by Thomas Gordon, called Teacher Effectiveness Training (TET). This method teaches you how to talk in a way that your students will listen, how to handle problems so that you get relief without damaging the student’s self-esteem. Teachers who use Gordon’s strategies, establish a deep and effective relationship with their students which makes them experience less stress, and prevent burnout.

Suggested books and resources

Egan, S. J., Wade, T. D., Shafran, R., & Antony, M. M. (2014). Cognitive-behavioral treatment of perfectionism. Guilford Publications.

Martin, S. (2019). The CBT workbook for perfectionism: evidence-based skills to help you let go of self-criticism, build self-esteem, and find Balance. New Harbinger Publications.

Gordon, T. (2010). Teacher effectiveness training: The program proven to help teachers bring out the best in students of all ages. Crown Archetype.


Egan, S. J., Wade, T. D., Shafran, R., & Antony, M. M. (2014). Cognitive-behavioral treatment of perfectionism. Guilford Publications.

Jeong, S. S. Y., & Ryan, C. (2021). A critical review of child perfectionism as it relates to music pedagogy. Psychology of Music, 03057356211042080.

Răducu, C. M., & Stănculescu, E. (2021). Protective Factors and Teachers’ Risk to Burnout during the Covid-19 Pandemic. Do Kolb’s Educator Roles Matter?-A Cluster Analysis.