Perfectionism leads to everything but Perfection
The struggles of preparing for a pressure filled performance
In looking back at a decade of being a high school choir director, the 2016-2017 academic year was perhaps the busiest and most pressure filled stretch of my professional career. I had the wonderful privilege of preparing my high school youngsters for a performance at the 2017 National ACDA Conference in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Early in my career, I quickly learned that a National ACDA performance was considered to be a milestone in the careers of many great choral conductors. Several of my great heroes in the choral field have inspired audiences at national conferences, and I dreamt that I would one day be blessed with an opportunity like that.
After over a decade of building the program at Arvada West High School, I felt like we had a realistic shot of making it happen. I approached Richard Larson, a trusted colleague, mentor, and Colorado MEA Hall of Fame recipient. He had a high school choir perform at the 1989 National ACDA in Kentucky, and his adult semi-professional chorus was invited as well. When he learned that I was going to apply, he literally spent hours pouring over my recordings from the previous couple of years (ACDA requires three selections – one example from the current academic year, and one each from the prior two years). After some very honest feedback about which recordings were the best, he and I both wound up agreeing on the same three selections. I submitted my application and didn’t think much of it after that.
I won’t soon forget Tuesday, June 21, 10:16am. I was standing in my living room and I heard my phone vibrate. The title of the email read “ACDA National Conference Audition Results.” I got some butterflies, but was 99% certain that I was going to be opening a kindly-worded rejection letter. “Congratulations Vocal Showcase and Chris Maunu!” I still didn’t believe it was anything. Many rejection letters congratulate the applicant for applying, then nicely state that you weren’t accepted. I read on, “…we invite your choir as a Performing Choir for the 2017 ACDA National Conference…” I fell to the floor and cried. I called my wife to share the good news, but was too choked up articulate my words. When she answered the phone to hear me sobbing, she feared somebody had died! I finally got it out. I was thrilled to call the rest of my family, mentors, and friends who have supported me along the way. I called a meeting to announce it to the students of Vocal Showcase a few days later. I was beyond elated and was floating on cloud nine.
Descent to the depths
Unfortunately, that feeling didn’t last long. I quickly descended into deep fear and anxiety. I had not yet heard the 2016-2017 choir! A few weeks prior, we had just graduated one of the most talented senior classes we’ve had since I’ve been at Arvada West. Would this new group represent themselves, our school, and Colorado well at this conference? How do I program our set without knowing exactly what repertoire this group is capable of doing? I spent the entire rest of the summer finding and listening to great repertoire, but second guessing myself every step of the way because I just didn’t know what would be best for them. I finally settled on a program and submitted it to ACDA in August. Technically, that list wasn’t due until November, but I feared I would miss out on doing a piece I wanted to do if I didn’t get it in early enough (ACDA doesn’t allow any duplicate performances).
The fall semester of 2016 was when the real problems began. I would get to the end of almost every single Vocal Showcase rehearsal feeling awful. Instead enjoying the process of watching the students find their sound, I freaked out every time a chord didn’t tune, something wasn’t balanced, or a piece wasn’t sounding like I thought it should. I would ruminate about it for hours. “This can’t happen! If it is happening now, it’s surely going to happen at ACDA!” I was quite careful to keep my fears and anxieties to myself and try not let the students know how freaked out I was. But, as I’ve experienced many times before, students can pick up on inauthenticity in a second. I didn’t realize it at the time, but they undoubtedly knew something was off with me, and it was ultimately hurting them as an ensemble. My self-doubt was eventually interpreted by my singers as their director not believing in them. I began to lose sight of why I am truly in this career. Although I believe every singer in every choir wants the ensemble to be great, that is not the primary reason most are there. They are there to be loved, affirmed, and included in a special community.
The path to finding courage
Although the core of my teaching philosophy includes vulnerability, love, community, and affirmation, I found myself falling into the trap of perfectionism. Brené Brown describes perfectionism as “other focused”, i.e. “What will they think?” Those that know me well, know what a fan I am of vulnerability. It’s time to practice a bit of that with all of you right now. There were many nights through that fall semester spent on the couch, sharing with my wife, Aleisha, that I did not have the courage to go through with this performance. I legitimately thought being laughed off of the stage was a real possibility. Aleisha convinced me to seek help from a mental health professional. It took numerous visits with my therapist to get re-centered with the whole thing. Through carefully guided discussions and homework, she helped me remember how small of a window of time a performance really is. If we are focused on the product too much, we miss out on the really good stuff – the journey. Over 98% of a choir’s existence is spent in the trenches, using this vehicle called music to pour out our souls for one another.
There was a particular therapy session in late January of 2017 that hit me like a ton of bricks and everything changed. A huge weight had been lifted in me. After 7 months of debilitating fear, anxiety, and dread, I finally let myself once again believe that I am worthy. I am enough. Shortly thereafter, Aleisha (who is also a gifted therapist) did a “future movie template” exercise with me. She had me imagine the full day of the performance in my head. When we got to the part where we were actually on stage, Aleisha asked me what I saw. I began to cry and shared that I see my singers wanting to give everything they have. Things really came into focus after that. My self-worth or even my worth as a conductor is not decided by a couple of 30-minute performances in front of a few thousand strangers. I have a job that I love immensely. I get to go into work everyday and inspire a few hundred young people through the gift of music. Yes, excellence is high on my list of priorities, but my view of it had turned it in to a cancer. When I let go of this “perfectionism demon,” so much began to change. In addition to my blood pressure descending to a normal level, I started to enjoy the process again. For the first time in 7 months, I let myself have fun! My students could pick up on that as well, and they freed up emotionally. The bonus is that this is also when the choir really began to jive vocally. The connection of emotional freedom to positive vocal production has always been deep in the core of my pedagogy, but I fell into the same debilitating pitfall we are all guilty of at times: worrying too much about what everyone else will think.
Enjoying the Beauty
When we finally traveled to Minnesota for the big performances, we had an absolute blast. It was a true joy to watch my students nerd out at the exhibits and be inspired by the best choirs they had ever heard. When it came time for our pair of performances, the fear and anxiety were gone. We spent the last few moments before our initial performance in a backstage area that resembled a boiler room. We cried together and the students shared what they were most thankful for and what this day meant for them. They entered the stage at Orchestra Hall before I was introduced. When I finally walked to the podium and turned to face the choir, I’ll never forget what we shared in that moment. I could see all of the love, passion, and anticipation in their eyes. The hard work had finally come to an end, and we truly got to enjoy the experience together.
In the extensive reflective conversations after the ACDA experience, the comments from the students were not about the “prestige.” Not at all. It was about how close we all became, how much love and care we have for one another, and how meaningful it was to share in the experience with each other. The biggest take away was that it does not take a performance at a national conference to bring those amazing things into focus with our choirs. We can find that preciousness every single day. I don’t think we as directors can ever fully escape the affliction that is unhealthy comparison, but perhaps we can find opportunities to remind ourselves and each other of what is truly beautiful about this incredible field we get to work in.