As a musician with obsessive compulsive disorder, the nature of perfection is on my mind a lot, including with regards to music.
There’s a notion that many classical musicians are taught to treat unplanned notes as mistakes. As a result, I’ve personally observed and hypothesize that classical musicians are generally more anxious and less creative, but also better at performing a piece precisely than jazz musicians for example.
Meanwhile, jazz musicians are known for treating unplanned notes as opportunities to build off, as opposed to errors. In my own observation I have found this same thing.
Although most folk musicians, singer-songwriter or other acoustic genre artists don’t play classical or jazz, the mindset is relevant nonetheless. The “classical” mindset, to me, is synonymous with practicing your song for a performance, where spending six months to achieve an improvement from 95% to 96% is considered worth it. The “jazz” mindset, on the other hand, might mean that improvising for 6 months leads to no improvement, or maybe even a solidifying of “bad” technique.
Long term vs short term
However, in my own experience, (and again I am a person with clinical anxiety disorders), shifting to the anxious mindset does in fact improve objective performance – but it is unsustainable. It took me two to three years to Travis pick to a level I enjoyed, but I noticed quickly that I began to lose a lot of my joy for the guitar and music in general – I suspect I had mentally associated music with discipline. On the other hand, before that, I had spent 7 years in my bedroom playing totally off feel and inspiration with little regard for the objective sound of my instrument, voice and songwriting. Although the music felt like an elation, I found that the moment I stopped playing, there was perhaps a hollowness left behind knowing that there was little improvement made.
Creator vs. Performer
Another element to consider is whether one person wants to be a prolific songwriter and creator or particularly skilled. Unfortunately, it seems like there is some neuroscience research to suggest that they may come into conflict, at least within a given moment in time, in that parts of the brain that need to be activated for creativity are the same ones that need to be dulled for discipline, and etc.
Bob Dylan is an example of an artist that is considered, fairly or not, as not the best musician, but perhaps the greatest American popular songwriter in the last century. He was known for writing songs in one pass which became classics, but after performing on the road for over half a century, is still not considered a strong guitar player despite it being his primary instrument.
Perhaps it is because his vision of music has always been about expressing his feelings in a given moment, as opposed to focusing each time on the end goal of writing hte best song, and treating each song as merely a means to an end. Instead, maybe he enjoyed the process.
Perhaps it is a matter of personality. At least for myself, I know my originating drive towards music was because I wanted to express the countless thoughts and emotions that flowed through my brain but whose velocity and volume couldn’t be done justice with pure prose. As I got older, I realized that I wanted not just to express myself, but also for some amount of objective recognition by my peers. And perhaps I swung too far and focused too obsessively on the craft and discipline, at the expense of inspiration. All I know is I swung so far that I probably almost fell off the ledge into permanently losing my joy for music.
I can’t say what the right path is for other musicians, because I hardly have a clue about my own, about whether I made the right choice about leaning into the anxious, perfectionistic “classical” view of music. But I do know, paradoxically, the less I think about it, the more I enjoy the process. So maybe I’ll just split the difference for now and play as well as I can without it ruining my joy, and let the chips fall where they may. After all, I got into it for fun and expression, so the muses would surely damn me to musical hell if I abandoned those original purposes to try to impress someone else.