The Perfectionist's Sword
Having a perfectionist mentality is a double-edged sword. As a teacher, I always appreciate the student that hungers to perfect the craft. In a sense, there's nothing I desire more in a student than the drive to master their studies! Yet it fascinates me that the same impulses that drive us to get a thing just perfect often come with some reactive qualities that detract from efficiently learning.
One of the techniques I teach my students in mastering a passage through repetition is continuous playthrough. This means to continue playing without stopping the groove, short of mistakes that cause us to completely lose our place in the music. The perfectionist in us though, wants to stop at every error and restart at the beginning, or some relative point. I have found over the years that in most instances though, this approach hinders us. The primary aphorism I use to express this is that, "if you were playing a concert and made a mistake, would you stop the band and the whole song and start over?" The answer, generally speaking, is "no!" The show must go on, as the colloquialism goes. So, with the best of intentions to get a part right, what we are actually doing is training ourselves to stop at every mistake. Thus mentally, we freeze at the realization of an error. This can have disastrous consequences for a performer.
Therefore, it is necessary to train ourselves in a way where the perfectionist goes away for lunch, and comes back when we have things mostly in order. We play through a passage, get a part of it wrong perhaps, but focus on playing as much of it correctly and in time as we can, recognizing but being only softly critical of the troublesome section. Once we have the general concept acquired, then we gradually increase the intensity of our efforts to play the tricky stuff. The point that we let the perfectionist back in the room is when we have cleanly isolated the spot giving us trouble and we can freely fuck it up without utterly derailing ourselves from playing through it.
In other words, don't be afraid to screw up a tricky fill or complex beat. Just learn to do it without losing your time. If you stop yourself every time you make a mistake, you will choke yourself off from things such as the spirit of improvisation, which is the part of us that sometimes ventures into the expression of experimental musical ideas- things that maybe we'll pull off, maybe we won't. But half the fun of going for it can be the excitement of uncertainty that comes along with it. If you are obsessed with perfection, it will be hard to allow yourself to venture into the unknown, which restricts you from an entire landscape of musical exploration. Again, the key is to will yourself to play through uncertainty and unperfected passages with attention to time. Get back to the "one" and you're probably safe. Then you get to approach it all over again, without having to restart your momentum. This leads to more continuous repetitions of the problematic phrase, giving us a chance to efficiently attack it until we wear down the physical puzzle before us.
Another concern I have with perfectionism is the tendency to overly focus on technical aspects of our playing over feel and style. You can be a technically superior drummer who can diddle and flam your way all over the drum kit while being right on every beat of the metronome, but if you don't let loose, explore the unknown, or stick your neck out once and awhile, there's a good chance you'll sound really square, too. Now, there's a place for that, and there's no right or wrong to things like this. But if I had my druthers I'd go see The Ramones at CBGB's over any RUSH concert ever, is all I'm sayin'.
On the other side of the consideration, I don't encourage sloppiness and carelessness. What I appreciate about the perfectionist is the sharp attention to detail that is being constantly sought out. Indeed, "It's good enough for rock n' roll" is a phrase I've heard indefensibly uttered way too many times as a lazy excuse for unprofessionalism or some hubristic assumption that sloppiness itself translates into style. Sure, there are sloppy musicians that captured a sound and a style and it's amazing when that happens. But it's only a correlation for the most part. Maybe it's part of a mentality, but one that evolved naturally for those magical musical moments and groups in history. Mostly what I see from musicians that actively embrace that kind of attitude or mentality is that they are just way more into their pants and hair than their music.
The key is to keep perfectionism in the right view. We often must relax it for the sake of getting a general feel for a new musical idea- let ourselves be sloppy and gradually mash the thing together until it has some relatively coherent shape to it, and then progressively turn up the dial on perfecting a thing until it sounds and feels exactly like it's meant to.