Over the years, I can’t count the amount of times a fellow musician explained their actions with something they referred to as their “competitive spirit.” This has always irked me and I’m not sure why.

Usually, the phrase comes into context when young musicians are faced with what’s known in Texas band as a “chair test”, or when there’s a big piece in a high school setting and a special audition is held to offer a chance for everyone to be in the running. Ironic that an attempt to give all students the same chance of success can create such angst and inner turmoil!

I find myself confronting this issue today as a teacher. There are some students I meet that are truly interested in pursuing music as a career, and I do what I can to help them think about what’s going to happen in school, or what the point of all the practicing and auditioning is. When I was a student, I wish a musician had explained to me that there’s a long game that goes past whatever audition or concert was immediately in front of me. I try to impart this to all of my students, regardless of whether or not they’re looking at music after high school. No matter what field a student is interested in, life doesn’t stop at high school.

There are other students that have no real interest in a music career, which is fine. They might not even like the horn, which is also fine, but they have a burning desire to win the first part or play in the top band. These students, while I use the opportunity to teach them some advanced techniques that I wouldn’t teach other students at their skill level, really upset me as a parent. It would break my heart if I knew that one of my kids harbored all of this strife for something that didn’t really matter to them. To me, it’s indicative of some other internal battle that is channeled and being manifested through music, which is low-stakes for someone who isn’t trying to be a professional. I would want to help my kids on a deeper level, but it’s not my place as a visiting teacher to address the psychological aspects.

Further still, I’ve learned as a working professional that there is SO much more that goes into a successful career than one’s playing level. For example, I play an audition that comes up every year that requires exactly the same repertoire. I never play vastly worse or better each time, but I don’t always win or lose. It’s a lot like playing solitaire: some rounds you deal yourself are just not winnable because the cards don’t fall that way, and that’s ok: you just hit the deck again and keep going until the end. If you factor in that a student is hinging part of their self-esteem on that hand, it can spell disaster.

As a teacher, especially of what is known in this country as an extra-curricular activity or elective, I think the worst thing I can do is to perpetuate this lie of “working hard guarantees success”. I’ve spent most of my life hiding behind my work ethic, like if I constantly put myself down and use that disappointment to be the best I can be, the work will magically follow. I’m now a working musician, but I don’t think anyone would consider my story a traditional American success. If I hadn’t been obsessed with working hard, I might have paid more attention to what it takes to hold up to pressure and convey to other musicians that I’m dependable and am qualified to hold my own job or show.

So instead of enabling this “competitive spirit”, I try to turn it around and ask the student “what is it that you really want?” Is it that they want to be good at the horn? Do they want to be good at something, no matter what it is? Why is it important that they’re the best? Not surprisingly, most “competitive” students don’t have an answer to that question. I use the deer-in-headlights moment to gently share that maybe being “competitive” is more about self-fulfillment and improvement than about being better than their colleagues. I point out that maybe, instead of striving to be better than a bunch of other high schoolers, they should strive to play to their most musical aspirations, or should work up to being able to play a piece that they like. When I can move the conversation out of the immediate, I can share my love of music and expose these students to different pieces that might inspire them to achieve something unique to themselves, instead of comparing themselves to everyone else. Isn’t it better for creative talent to be independent from everyone else’s, and not tethered to what’s around it?

Work hard, always strive to be your best, but don’t forget that the game starts and ends within yourself.

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