As a high school musician growing up outside of Chicago, one of the coveted “wins” was to be a finalist in the Chicago Symphony Young Artists competition. After the prelims, you’d stay at home, waiting for the phone to ring with the news that you had been chosen.
From there, the film crews would come and interview your family and friends, and later that spring, as you performed your concerto with the CSO live on TV, the audience watched a mini-documentary about you. You got to experience rockstar status for a long time, and you also got to put that incredible line on your bio: “debuted with the Chicago Symphony at the age of 15”
All of my friends did it–seriously, in my circle, it was just something that happened.
Year after year, I waited by the phone, but the only calls that came were from my excited friends who had just received THE call. I would congratulate them, and be genuinely happy for them, but inside, I’d be a mess. I felt embarrassed, left out, wondering if I should quit, or if maybe it was all a sign that I wasn’t good enough.
Thankfully, I didn’t quit. I kept my head up. I went to New England Conservatory and practiced my butt off. I got better. I grew as a musician, as a performer, and as a competitor. And at the end of the day, while I can recall the hurt I felt at not getting that opportunity, I smile at how little it mattered in the grand scheme of things.
Now it’s my students’ turn. They are all at the age of competitions, All-States, college, and festival auditions. And while it seems that every week, we’re celebrating someone’s win, sometimes they don’t win. Sometimes, it’s their own devastating version of the CSO competition. I feel their hurt, and all I want to do is give them the tools that I didn’t have at their age.
As a professional musician who has had a somewhat successful career, I know that the wins vs. losses in their high school years (and even college to a certain extent) don’t have much bearing on their future career, what worries me is that they don’t always know how to recognize the wins that do matter.
Music is hard. There’s constant competition, the pressure to win, and every high-pressure situation feels like everything is at stake. We read the bios of our heroes and believe that we need to do everything they did, or we won’t have their careers. The comparison trap is hard to avoid.
Unfortunately, rejection is a part of the game. I only know one student who won everything. EVERY.THING. He was unstoppable. Playing didn’t make him nervous, and everything came so easily to him. Incredibly successful career? Not as a cellist! He got bored and went into something that challenged him a bit more. Now he’s in a field where he gets rejected sometimes.
As dear Epictetus taught us: We only have control over 2 things in life: How we prepare for what might happen, and how we respond to the things that happen. We have no control over WHAT ACTUALLY HAPPENS TO US.
1. Give yourself a set amount of time to feel all the feels. About 1-2 Days should be your max. It’s not healthy to shrug it off and deny that we’re feeling bad. Eat ice cream, stay in your PJs, cry, write about it. Do whatever you need to do. Then dust yourself off and move on to step 2.
2. Think about your performance and write down any wins from the experience. Did you get through it without a memory slip? Did you manage to calm your nerves more than ever before? Did you have more endurance?
3. Write down what you learned from the experience: don’t drink coffee that day–it makes me tight, or If I run through the piece at tempo 20 times before I’m on, I will be too tired to play well. etc. Now, reframe those as the positives you’ll do next time around. “I’ll avoid caffeine and stay hydrated the morning of, and I’ll warm-up calmly and slowly–doing mostly scales and mental practice to stay warm and keep my energy up”
4. Write yourself a letter from your future 80-year old self. Congratulate yourself for putting yourself out there, as FDR would say “in the arena.” Tell yourself how proud you are of the preparation and courage it took to get there. Celebrate the wins you experienced, and the lessons you learned that will make the next performance go better. Talk about how this performance/audition/competition was pivotal in your growth because of everything you learned and all of the wonderful things it led to.
Those who become all-consumed in their negative outcomes are doomed to a life of misery. They are unlikely to have many friends because that kind of attitude is universally off-putting, and sadly, they’ll never be in control of their own happiness.
However, those that will have successful careers have competitive spirits, but all in the name of fun, growth, and challenge. What is more important to them is the love of the music, the desire to be a part of this world, and to explore it as deeply as possible.
There is no evidence that humans have a limit to their talent. Quite the opposite, in fact. What we do know, is that If you work hard, if you continue to challenge yourself and prioritize growth over winning, you can achieve whatever you want. Embrace your losses as opportunities for growth, and the true win is all yours.
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