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Tuesday, May 3, 2016

On failure

My dear student Madison and I were talking about failure in her lesson. Not because she is one, mind you (far from it), but because it's a hot topic for students and performers especially. She mentioned that many of you beat yourselves up quite thoroughly after your juries, so I resolved to post a blog entry on the subject.

Why are we so hard on ourselves? My stock answer used to be: "If I beat myself up, at least I know it'll get done right." Being a smart-aleck about it revealed a grain of truth, however: sometimes we want to beat others to the punch. We think it will hurt less, somehow, if we do it ourselves rather than allow others an opening to injure us with their criticism.

I'd like to offer a few thoughts about this. While my opinion is just that--one person's opinion, nothing more--I hope some of this might help you. It also might spark some conversation. Feel free to post any responses here, because I'd welcome other viewpoints.

I believe that today's society does not help you deal with failure. Everyone gets a trophy. In school, A's are rewarded for "effort." Kids are allowed to quit a new endeavor if they are not immediately a star. The list goes on, but you get the idea.

The thing is, not everyone deserves a trophy. A's should not be a reward for effort: they should be a grade earned by exemplary work. Not everyone should make the softball team. And most importantly, everything worth doing well takes time to master. If you are beaten down by every setback, how will you deal with a mediocre job review, a layoff, a relationship ending? Failure is part of the process.

When I was on the junior high track team, I tripped over a hurdle during practice. I was wearing shorts, and the track was made of cinders. It was not a pretty sight, I'll tell you that much. Now, I was never a track star, but I did finish the season after that debacle. My leg healed, and so did my pride. Getting back on the track was probably the best thing I could have done for myself, and I actually was the anchor later that season for the 400-yard relay. Of course, not long after that I decided that music and theatre were where I wanted to spend my time, and that was the right choice. But I still learned by lacing up my sneakers after eating some dirt that day when I took a header over a hurdle.

My concern about some of my students is that I fear that some of you have never failed at something. Failure is important. How you handle it is even more crucial. Do you get up, dust yourself off, and try again? Do you evaluate whether or not you really want to pursue whatever you've just messed up? Do you explore other options for success? Or do you run home to your parents, and do they just tell you whoever "rejected" you was just misguided/stupid/deaf? Or even worse, do you hide behind a video game or other escape of choice, convincing yourself you didn't really care anyway? Do you just tell yourself that you never had a chance, so what's the point of giving it another shot?

I'd encourage each of you to make improvement your goal each time you do something musical, rather than simply doing well. Good is one thing; we can always do better, though, no matter how advanced or how much of a beginner we are. Here is a great article on the subject, from one of my favorite blogs.

One thing I have learned since I became serious about my health and exercising regularly is that every day I get into the gym is a triumph. Some days will go better than others, and sometimes I "fail," if you can call it that. Maybe I don't do as many sets, or I poop out after 45 minutes, or I do a long walk around the track when I'd planned to do an hour of weights. I do know that if I'm in there regularly, I can increase the weight on each machine every few weeks as I build strength. Each time I move up the weight, or do an extra set, my self-esteem grows. Every goal I achieve in the gym or on the bathroom scale is one that precipitates a new and improved goal...and that's the point.

The funny thing is, the more I work out in the gym, the more objective I can be about my own singing, my auditions, and my work in the practice room. I am clearer about the fact that all of this is a marathon, not a sprint. I will practice regularly for the rest of my life. Hopefully, you will too: it's not just about that jury, that gig, or that grad school. Likewise, I will work out regularly for the rest of my life. Achieving my weight loss goal doesn't mean I now eat pizza every day and somehow think I'm "done." It's a lifestyle, and while I won't be doing the same things when I'm 70 that I'm doing now, I'll be doing something, every day.

Moreover, it's not all about music, either. My singing (and even my teaching) is not all there is to my life, and that helps with perspective. Having hobbies or pursuits that are not musical can help you in ways that you might not imagine.

I encourage each of you to get out there and fail at something. You'll survive, I promise, and you'll be better people for it, especially if you keep hammering away at it until you see progress. What's more, your performing can only be better for it, because you'll have a sense of freedom knowing that it isn't all that you are.

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