Thursday, January 31, 2008

Musical Self-Worth

Today is the first day of the Illinois Music Teachers' Association convention, and the high school musicians across the state who were recommended to participate in the All State orchestras, bands, and choral groups are, even as I write, taking auditions to see how they "measure up" against their counterparts from other high schools. The students, particularly the orchestral string players, are separated into two orchestras--one is an "honors" orchestra and one is the "regular" orchestra, and lined up two-by-two in order of playing level. Even thinking about it makes my blood boil. Every person who has been recommended for All State (in any state) is capable of playing his or her part. Some people prefer to be leaders and some people prefer to be followers, but everyone has to submit themselves to the ranking.

I have always hated competition because of the "better or worse than" aspect. Nothing reinforces insecurity like being measured and ranked, especially by someone you do not know who only hears you play for three minutes under tremendously tense circumstances. The people who participate tend to, even if they are not interested in being one of the leaders (people who sit on the first stand), evaulate themselves according to where they are seated.

I imagine that the people who enjoy this kind of competition are often the people who go on to win auditions, if they choose to go into music as a profession. But aren't the people who love music and practice carefully, but do not enjoy this kind of competition, just as capable of being excellent members of a musical organization?

There is the larger question of musical self worth, which I think is a problem for musicians because the way to "quantify" the quality of someone's playing or composing is so fragile. Somewhere along my path to music I picked up the nasty phrase, "You're only as good as your last performance." How I hate that phrase! How I try not to let it creep into my mind, and how I try to drown it out it whenever possible. It always comes back, though. And then there's the (irrational) fear, after a successful performance or after completing a piece of music that "works," that the next performance I give or the next piece I write won't measure up to what I have done. Since every act in music always starts from scratch, there is always the possibility that the next thing, whatever it is, won't be as good as the last thing.

For years I was haunted by wrong notes and wrong entrances. In the perfection-driven arena of wind playing, nobody could afford to make mistakes. It has taken me a long time to get to the point where I can put this all behind me. I can safely say that I am no longer haunted by wrong entrances or even by wrong notes. They happen once in a while, but I don't keep track of them or lose sleep over them because they really don't matter.

Making improvement on the violin does not make me a better musician or a better person. It just makes it easier for me to express myself. Being able to play the first chords of the Bach Chaconne with a little vibrato is a great accomplishment because now I can play the first chords of the Bach Chaconne with vibrato. Period. Having the ability to navigate through chromatic passages while shifting from position to position does not make me a better person. It just makes it easer for me to navigate through chromatic passages while shifting from position to position. If there are technical things that I cannot yet do, being able to do them will not make me a better person or a better musician.

Having the ability to write a piece of music that I like doesn't make me a better person. It just means that I have the ability to write music that I like.

I hope that anyone reading this who is auditioning for one of the All State orchestras will understand that your ranking is not a measure of how good a musician you are or even how good a player you are. It is simply a reflection of how accurately you play during a very short audition. I guess it is the only way that festivals like All State can organize their musicians quickly and efficiently in order to maximize rehearsal time and make the performances at the end of the week as enjoyable as possible for the musicians and the audiences.

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T. said...

Thank you for this, Elaine. It's important and well-written.

jupiterjenkins said...

Great post.

I once knew a very fine math teacher at a prestigious university. He made the remark once that he was thankful that in his field (theoretical math?), evaluation was objective and measurable. Every teacher in his department knew exactly where they stood in terms of competence. This guy was also a very fine classical guitarist. He pointed out that musicians suffer from subjective evaluation. Ain't it the truth.

Lee said...

Yes, I'm very glad to read this too.