Failure is both a celebrated and taboo topic in performative disciplines.
You will see many athletes, musicians, actors, etc, discuss failure as a pathway to success, and the internet is littered with inspirational quotes about failure and its necessity as part of a successful career or life.
You will also notice that these same performers, and most everyday run-of-the-mill humans, will hide their failures behind the veil of their successes, showing only the positive event that came after what we can assume was many less desirable outcomes.
I think most of us can put ourselves in both of these camps. I often share stories of failed auditions or subpar performances with my students as a means of showing that we all have them and they are one of the ways we learn. But I also rarely share failed outcomes - or even that I'm making an attempt at something scary - publicly. What's the expression about holding your cards close?
My point here is not that either of those ways of viewing or hiding failure is right or wrong. Rather, I think we all need to consider our relationship to failure more closely and sincerely as a window to how we're approaching and living our lives.
It's important to define what you mean by failure - it's an awfully broad term, after all. When you think of failing, do you mean that you completely fell on your face and made a fool of yourself, and that you had absolutely no idea how to do the thing you were attempting? Or, maybe more likely, failure could mean that you made a concentrated effort toward something using your accumulated knowledge and skill and it didn't work out. Those are two very different things!
It's also important to differentiate between a few things:
- Did you actually "fail" (By your definition? By someone else's?) or were you simply not the first pick?
- Does your "failure" negate any of your skills, knowledge or worth?
- Do you truly feel like a failure or are you simply disappointed? (More on this in a second)
- Can you try again? (Do you want to?)
- Did you learn something? (This sounds cliche - try to be very specific about you want to improve on)
As I experience more failures and successes, I am beginning to think we have our definitions and priorities all wrong. Failure is more of an experience than a thing.
First of all, we have to dedicate ourselves to something and then be willing to take a risk to even have success or failure. Maybe we should try harder as we become more skilled to maintain focus on the process and objective.
Second, we learn from every experience in life. We learn what we did well, not well, or what just plainly needs to be different. Most crucially, we should learn what is important to us and why it is important for us to share.
Third, we need to understand what failure (or success for that matter) does and does not do to us. Failure does not inherently change us - what we learn helps us change ourselves.
Finally, a "failure" does not mean you're incapable, terrible, unseen or any other negative adjective. Just because you weren't the "winner" doesn't mean you lost anything.
(A side note that "success" could be redefined in a similar way - as a gratification of a tremendous amount of effort or a positive outcome of something we have invested in, etc.)
Most importantly: We need to learn to differentiate between our feelings of self worth, the feeling of failure, and the feeling of disappointment.
There have been many devastating disappointments in my career - or at least I thought they were at the time they occurred. Eventually I had to decide, like we all do, if I would keep on trying or not. As I drove on to new objectives those feelings of failure were left further and further behind, and in the rearview mirror they often look a lot more like hurt and disappointment.
I think for most of us, part of our struggle in dealing with failures is that we don't understand them by the correct definition. When was the last time you truly failed? Like, first time riding a bike fell off and skinned your knee because you were clueless failure? In your musical career, this type of "failure" probably hasn't happened since back when you were a beginner.
This understanding doesn't make it easier to deal with a failure (or rather, a disappointment) in the moment, but I believe it can make it a healthier process for all of us. One that we can weave into the overall fabric of our experiences, rather than allowing it to be definitive.
I don't mean to say that the disappointment that comes from a "failure" or outcome we didn't want is insignificant. It is still a huge feeling to be grappled with. But, like most feelings, it only becomes easier to deal with if we call it for what it is, face it head on, and allow ourselves to feel the visceral experience of it. Eventually we'll tire of that exhaustive disappointment, begin to see the experience clearly and start looking forward.
We're often not privy to the things that happen when others get to decide if we have "earned" a place. However, any insight you gain won't matter if you don't learn to understand your feelings, value yourself and your efforts, and believe in your capability to grow.
Seeing failure for the disappointment it really is softens the blow and helps us accept the situation without unecessary self-degradation. In this way we can continue to learn and grow, to understand ourselves better, and move on to the next project (which, as you might expect, will inevitably bring some disappointments and some successes).
Understanding our true experiences, whether they are positive or negative, can bring us a more realistic, satisfying, and fulfilling approach to work and life.
As musicians, we begin our studies at a very early age, and although we may not be aware of it at first, we are compiling methods, habits and resources from our earliest lessons.
Even something as simple as our hand position is a habit built from the way in which we were taught. We don’t have to relearn it (unless we want to change it), it just remains with us as part of our playing.
As we become better players, we begin to seek out ways of improving - technical exercises, practice techniques, practice plans, long tones and tone exercises, feedback on our embouchure and breathing - and build up intentional habits around these things.
If we change teachers we might adapt our compiled resources, purging the ones that no longer serve us and adding new ones.
As students, and even as a professional, the number of possible resources, methods and approaches can sometimes seem overwhelming. There’s no way we could even try all of them, let alone make sure to keep trying everything we’ve learned.
For the same reason we feel ready to move on to new teachers, we become ready to leave an old method or way of doing things behind, and that’s a very healthy habit of growth and self evaluation.
Gathering your tools
When I begin to introduce this kind of intentional resource building to my students, I talk to them about building a toolbox.
We explore warm ups, practice techniques, tone exercises and possible practice routines or schedules in depth. As we complete a detailed exploration of one of these tools we place it in the tool box, filing it under potential uses. As lessons continue we discuss times when it would be good to break out an old tool for a particular piece or problem, and begin to develop an expansive library of tools for approaching challenges and problems.
I’ve come to love this toolbox analogy. It takes some stress out of feeling we have to practice everything in every way all the time. It also encourages my students to think critically about the problems they encounter in practice and what exercises they already know that might help. If nothing in the toolbox seems quite right, it encourages them to ask me about any issues in an effective way because they have already given the challenge careful thought.
Having an in-depth understanding of your resources also builds confidence as you begin to solve your own musical problems and learn to trust your instincts.
After all, no one understands your playing from the inside out except you.
Sometimes we let habits or tendencies into our toolbox without realizing, and it’s good to be aware of what tools we are using so that we can clean out the box when it starts to look more like a junk drawer. Examples of items you might remove are playing too fast when just learning a piece, or forcing the sound too much to project or play in a loud volume.
Building this kind of toolbox and making sure it doesn’t get junky or begin to overflow due to inattention is not only applicable to music. Considering our tools for life in this way is also helpful for clearing mental space, building intentional habits and creating the kind of life we want.
You can think of it in an everyday context, or consider how what physical and mental tools are needed for performance. (Hint - those two things aren’t and shouldn’t really be that different.)
For example, maybe sometimes you find yourself feeling exhausted and lethargic, only to realize you haven’t been sleeping enough for the last week and aren’t really drinking much water.
Or, try thinking back to the last difficult conversation you had to have where you couldn’t get a handle on your emotions enough to articulate your point. That’s not all that different from emotions running wild in a performance to the extent that your nerves are the ones driving the bus.
We need to build tools for life as much or more than we even need them to be good musicians. The subject matter may seem more basic - it’s not necessarily intellectually challenging to focus on how many ounces of water you want to consume each day - but it’s often the simple things in life that allow us to reach our fullest potential.
Tools for our physical health could be sleeping enough, staying hydrated, and finding a type of exercise we enjoy enough to do regularly.
Filling our mental health toolbox might mean finding meditation practices we enjoy and benefit from, journaling or making sure we have a trusted friend to talk to when we’re stressed, and then making sure to do those things consistently.
Just like with music, when we build a “life toolbox,” what we keep in it will expand and change as we try new things and get to know ourselves better and better.
You’ll find that your musical tools and your life tools will actually overlap and you can probably keep them in the same box after all.
You have everything you need
The thing I want to stress most out of all this analogizing is that you already have every tool you need in this moment.
Every tool you have stashed away and used up to this point has allowed you to get here.
Will you learn new tools? Yes.
Will you throw away the old, worn out ones? Yes.
Just because you will continue to grow doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with where you are. And, just because you come up against a struggle doesn’t mean you are doing anything wrong.
Go back to your box and take a look around - what can you use?
If you really don’t know the answer, go to someone you trust and ask for their favorite tool. Maybe you’ll borrow it or maybe you’ll keep it, but either way you will become more educated about what you need and what the right tools are for your job of building your life.
Remember, you are the only person that knows yourself inside and out.
The moment you realize that you have all these tools at your disposal is the moment you can access your full potential, and it’s available to you any time.
If you're a musician, you're likely not a stranger to perfection or perfectionism, or to the feeling that you have to get it right.
In fact, perfectionism can often breed a lot of success for a musician......for a while. The drive to continue working to get it "right" can push us forward. Often, until we are right up against a wall of frustration or stalled development.
There is a certain amount we need to be able to do right in music and in life - our scales, the etude for our next lesson, eating three meals a day, driving safely on the highway, and maybe those orchestral excerpts you want to be especially perfect for your next audition.
At some point, perfectionism becomes straight up self-criticism and causes us to question a lot about our playing and performance. It might cause us to think things like: "If only I could have done it right like so-and-so....I bet that they don't struggle with breathing like I do," or "I bet they don't miss a day of their workouts or binge Netflix instead of practicing."
Thoughts of how everyone else is "doing it right" can permeate our preparation for auditions, job interviews, our practice sessions, and even our daily life.
In the age of social media, it seems like everyone's practice routines, strategies for success, and endless accomplishments are on full display.
Of course we start to wonder if we're getting it anywhere close to right. It's only natural to question your intuition when the messaging says that everyone else has the answers.
There are a few realities that evade us in the messaging we often receive. When you have a moment of self doubt in practice or in life remind yourself that:
When you see other musicians/people succeeding you see only the tip of the iceberg.
Only you understand what works for your life.
Your aspirations can be different than others.
You are the only person who can do what you are dreaming of,
Only you know what message you'd like to share, and being honest is different than being right.
Messy is way more interesting than perfect.
There are enough people "doing it right" in the world. Trust yourself to do it your way, to follow your intuition, and to share your message even if it's messy.
Also, it's not normal to feel obligated to influence thousands of people online every day. Focus on making a difference for yourself and those around you.
Trust yourself to do it right....for you.
We have all heard the talking points about music education and why it’s crucial for students: they become better test takers, better at math, their overall grades are better, they learn to be a team player, etc. This list goes on and on and frankly, if you are already an advocate of music education, these things seem quite obvious.
Students who study privately get an extra layer of benefits. They receive one on one time with an adult who is invested in them and gets to know their personality and interests. They’re given opportunities to try new things that are challenging in a safe environment, which teaches them to be able to continue taking calculated risks going forward in life.
My students also build confidence in so many ways. They have small wins and improvements every week that show how even a little built of effort creates results. They learn that their interests are worthwhile simply because they enjoy them which helps them confidently explore their creativity and capabilities. We consistently work through difficulties and come out on the other side ensuring to them that with the right approach they can do difficult things.
From my perspective, all of this is already making studying an instrument sound pretty awesome. But, as many public school and private music teachers know, it’s a hard sell to keep students in music programs and lessons. School is very demanding with AP and honors classes, expectations for how many activities students will be in, volunteering, growing social lives, social media and peer pressure, and then more recently, a pandemic layered on top.
It’s not surprising that it can be hard for students to see why spending an hour practicing flute or violin or any instrument alone while all of this looms over you is worth it.
So, how exactly is practicing like real life?
There are several direct connections between practicing and real life that I think show its value in a different and more accessible way.
Analysis and calculated action
I reference creating a tool box a lot in lessons. Take warm-ups for example: we learn a variety of warm-ups consistently in lessons like harmonics, long tones, tapers, arpeggiated exercises, tone exercises, and the list goes on.
Students can often view these warm ups as the tedious thing they have to do with the tuner or metronome before they can practice the “fun stuff.” But the reason they feel this way is because they haven’t connected them to the rest of their practice.
Enter the toolbox. It is your individual collection of approaches and tactics that tackle specific issues you know are problematic for you. When you are practicing on your own and run up against something difficult, you can reach into this toolbox and try on a few possible ways to fix the problem.
This requires awareness that there is a problem in the first place - recognizing that is half the battle. Then, an analysis of what might be causing the issue. (Pitch dropping or going flat at the end of a note? Perhaps the air is not fast enough or strong enough.) To do this analysis you have to step back and observe, not take immediate action. We live in a society that demands instant - instant response to emails, instant reactions and responses to text messages. This analysis of our challenges and available tools takes patience.
Once you have evaluated your situation and what you have at your disposal, then you can take calculated action trying on one or several tools in the format you learned them, or adjusted and adapted to the specific situation. (To work on air speed and droopy note ends, you might work on tapers and harmonics, for example.)
This ability to pause and observe, catalog what we have at our disposal, and then act is a skill we all need in real life.
In a world that would imply we need to exist only on snap judgements, we all should be able to give ourselves the space to make good choices and apply the tools we have learned.
Self-reliance and independent thinking
There is a lot of pressure to succeed in specific ways now, not in the least because other people’s success and ideas are so visible to us around the clock. Students and professionals alike are constantly bombarded with what our peers are doing and, subsequently, with what we are not doing.
There are constant messages in all professions and parts of life that if you do this journaling exercise you will discover what’s holding you back, or if you take this course you will suddenly know how to sell your skills, or if you bought that shirt and wore your makeup differently you would be more likable.
Not only is this messaging exhausting, it also subliminally tells us that we are missing something we need. You might have experienced this in your own life. Perhaps you felt knowledgable about something and then found yourself wondering what everyone else would think if they saw you doing that skill on display.
When we practice, we are essentially forced into quiet time alone with ourselves. This can seem overwhelming when we are used to so much input, and students may find themselves practicing and thinking that they couldn’t possibly know what to do. Perhaps they get distracted thinking how their embouchure looks weird, or their hand position is different than that other person’s, or that they have no idea how to fix that weird thing about their tone. It’s no wonder when the internet would have us believe that we can buy the answers to almost anything.
This is where we must exercise independent thinking and self reliance. As a musician, and a human, you are unique. Your bone structure, your embouchure, your sense of holding and playing the instrument, the inner working of your life, is unique to your experiences.
We can build self-reliance with independent thinking. Taking what you know about yourself, and releasing any concerns about other opinions, you can revisit the toolbox you are building and rummage through what you have available to you. Maybe you’ll find what you need or it will produce a question you take to your next lesson or research on your own. Or, maybe you will find that you’ve created a challenge for yourself where there isn’t one and what you need is to relax into focusing on the music and expressing yourself.
Building confidence in this independent work is where practice prepares us for real life. No matter how connected we are online, how popular someone seems, or how far we feel like we have to go, the lesson to be learned from practice is that you have to live through your own version of the task and remember that no one holds the answers for you.
To practice and live well we must exercise trust that we are the expert in our experience.
Reinforcing and sharing your work and discoveries
Sometimes students shy away from lessons because the idea of performing in recitals scares them, or taking auditions seems too intimidating. Maybe they don’t like to play in band because they feel judged by those around them.
Most of us have had the experience of doing really well in our own practice, then going to a lesson and not doing even half as well. Often, it’s because we aren’t as focused or we are nervous or anxious about sharing what we’ve done.
Practicing to reinforce your analysis and calculated actions through self-reliance and independent thinking requires us to repeat the skills above over and over. To build the muscle memory of “right efforting” into our practice and daily work.
Sharing what we’ve practiced and explored can feel challenging, but I think this is most important step in the process of practice. In fact, it can even be viewed as a practice. If you become used to sharing (in your lessons, performances, online, in writing, in teaching, etc.), then it is another muscle you exercise.
Deciding to consistently share what you practice proves to you that it becomes easier the more you do it, that you can work independently and have success, and that even if something doesn’t succeed a failure is a bump in the road, not a dead end.
Practice = real life:
These skills are something students can learn from the very beginning of studying music and develop all the way through becoming working musicians or moving on to other fields. No matter how long you play your instrument for, the mastery of these abilities that come directly from practicing will benefit you.
We will be called over and over again in life to be present in difficult situations in both work and personal circumstances, and these skills that encompass our practice are what makes it most valuable.
Our awareness, self trust, and the tool box we build can aide us in navigating both music and life with ease.
Hi, I'm Morgann! Flutist, teacher, aspiring yogini, and life long learner figuring out how to create my way through life one crazy idea at a time.