Failure, The Price of Success?

How often does the fear of failure prevent us from making the beautiful music of which we are capable? It seems that the more we worry about sounding good the less well we perform. Perhaps we should forget about ‘performing’ (just see what negative associations the dictionary throws up for that term!) and remember that music was mankind’s first means of communication.

I have been brought back, once again, to pondering this question by a young pianist who says she is giving up the piano because she has been told that she doesn’t have the ability to excel as a performer, or even to pass advanced grade exams. My response was that, if she plays the piano just to be better at it than other people, she should give it up and find some channel for competition outside of the arts. However, if she plays because she loves music and wants to share it with other people, she should just get on and do that and her love will communicate itself to others.

We often do not play well in auditions, competitions and exams because we are conscious of being judged. It’s not like taking a driving test or a maths test: communicating through music is much more personal and we find it hard to separate our innermost self from its physical expression. But we will never find joy in sincere music-making unless we have a sense of self-worth that is not dependent on an assessment of our musical skills. In other words, we have to accept that we may fail and make music anyway. Paradoxically, once we embrace the ‘death’ of failure, we can begin to live and grow as musicians.

I find it really hard to put all this into words but I recommended to the disappointed young pianist the book entitled “Effortless Mastery” by jazz musician, Kenny Werner, in which he explores the failure/success paradox and its implications for musicians. Many have found reading this deeply spiritual book a really life-changing experience and Kenny is ever generous in responding to his readers, encouraging them to put its principles into practice. In recent weeks, he has been running a series of tele-seminars on his website, answering readers’ questions and these are available for replay. See Effortless Mastery


4 thoughts on “Failure, The Price of Success?

  1. I can relate to those feelings (and I am a professional music teacher with a Master’s degree). There is a local jam session that occurs weekly here in town, and I feel like I would need to practice quite a bit before I would even feel ready to participate. I keep telling myself that, for crying out loud, it’s an open jam session, not an audition, not a performance, but an event designed for people like me who don’t get to play or perform as much as they would like. Yet somehow I still don’t feel ready.

  2. Audrey —

    Perhaps a shift in educational focus from performance skills to compositional skills would help address this motivational issue.

    Such a shift in forus would be very difficult to accomplish today, because music theory is such a complex subject. That leaves music educators with nothing to teach performance-related skills.

    I propose that much of the apparent complexity of music theory can be eliminated through the use of alternative notations and instruments, as described in this draft paper:

    Its abstract reads as follows:
    Nearly a thousand years ago, Guido d’Arezzo imagined “sight-reading written music,” in support of which he developed new technology (including the staff and solmisation) and new pedagogy (including his use of the hymn Ut queant laxis and the exercise Alme rector) [Pesce, pp. 459-475]. Sight-reading enabled Guido to turn novices into proficient singers in just one year, or at most two—an efficiency improvement of at least 5:1, and perhaps 10:1, compared to earlier singer-training practices [Pesce, pp. 445-447].

    As a “thought experiment,” this paper imagines extending Guido’s core innovations to enable “sight-reading music theory.” It is proposed that developing this skill may have the potential to increase, by a factor similar to Guido’s, the rate at which students become proficient music theorists. The thought experiment uses a hypothetical system for displaying and controlling musical information called JIMS Isomorphic Music System (JIMS).

    I have recently started developing online music education courseware based on JIMS. So far, I’ve developed only one (unfinished, buggy) component of JIMS: an interactive QWETRY-based JIMS keyboard:

    My hope is that JIMS-based online interactive courseware will make music theory so transparently simple that musical novices will learn to compose and improvise TOO, from the outset, rather than focusing ONLY on performing other people’s music. Then, students’ studies can be more self-motivated: how can I make *my* song’s chord progression sound better? How can I improve *my* song’s voice-leading? What was that you said yesterday about “deceptive cadences,” and how can I use that in *my* song?

    Furthermore, JIMS may also heighten students’ motivation be engaging them in the exploration of *entirely new* tonal frontiers, via Dynamic Tonality:

    Dynamic Tonality gives music students the opportunity to extend the traditional facts and rules of tonality in entirely new directions. Dynamic Tonality’s “new frontier” is not littered with the dauntingly-brilliant works of long-dead musical giants; therefore, even a student could break new ground, discover new musical rules, and advance the state of the art, while still building on tonality’s time-honored foundations. Perhaps most importantly (to the students), Dynamic Tonality gives students the opportunity to create music that does NOT sound like their parents’ music…yet still “sounds good” (i.e., sounds comfortingly tonal).

    The combination of faster learning and stronger motivation could, I suspect, prove to be significant. But…what do I know?

    Your comments, and those of your readers, would be very welcome.

    Thanks! 🙂

    Jim Plamondon
    iGetIt! Music

  3. Pingback: Why Group Improvisation? | Making Music Matters!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.