The world constantly presents us with challenges. Sometimes we find their solutions quite readily, or we may struggle with a problem for years. And other times we might just give up, or even ignore the dilemma altogether. Finding a successful resolution would seem to be the best option when we have the choice, but this success often comes with a price. The thoughts I share with you now are based on both observation and personal experience, and I’m sure many of them could be quite familiar to you. The point here is to help raise our awareness…always a good thing in our day to day lives, but just as essential to someone involved with the discipline of music…where in spite of our best accomplishments, more work always seems to lie ahead.
I’ll start with what I call the “Curse of the Compliment“…a phenomenon I frequently witness during my private teaching. A student will make a breakthrough and do a beautiful job playing a passage of music, or in the context of their fundamental work. I, of course compliment them. And what happens immediately following that success? They falter. I’m not just talking about just reverting back to their former way of playing (which could be understood, considering that old habits are often hard to break, and new ones are hard to make consistent). What I witness here though is a performance which is actually worse than their former way of playing…all due to a momentary mental mistake…a letdown in concentration.
I often hear another similar example on the jazz radio station KUVO 89.3 FM, in the Denver area. A trumpet player builds his solo to a wonderful climax…a beautifully played, soaring high note, only to miss the following note (or notes) that follow immediately after. And I see the same thing when a student plays an ascending scale, successfully increasing their air support for the last few notes…only to crack the first descending note, even while there is still plenty of air left in their lungs. You might chalk that up to inexperience, but these examples suggest the problem is more universally prevalent.
I’m not the first person to be aware of this facet of human nature. Whenever he received a compliment, Marcus Aurelius (an emperor of ancient Rome) had a servant by his side who was instructed to whisper in his ear, “You’re just a man…just a man” (“momento mori”…thou art mortal). This practice became a custom of those times, to remind even triumphant generals returning home with a celebratory parade to remain humble. Abraham Lincoln claimed that the best way to test a man’s character was to give him power, and we see evidence of his wisdom today, when it is a well known fact that many multi-million dollar lottery winners find their lives change for the worse…after they receive their winnings.
There’s more. Successful people oftentimes find themselves surrounded by “Yes Men”…those who always agree in order to help with their own self promotion, rather than offering objective and constructive criticism when it is needed. Can you imagine how hard it would be to learn and grow when everyone is telling you how great you are? Sports teams have been known to build great scoring leads during the first half of the game, only to lose all of their momentum, and even the entire game in the second half. Musicians who have a successful best selling song or album are often compelled to perform that music the rest of their careers, or at least stay within the genre the public (or critics) have pigeonholed them within, especially if it may guarantee they can continue to support the lifestyle their success has afforded them.
I would not deny anyone the fruits of their labors, but wouldn’t everyone like to avoid the setbacks that can accompany success? And just so it does not sound like I’m preaching from Olympus, I will confess that I have been snared by those kinds of setbacks throughout my life, not realizing that the misstep had even happened for sometimes years later. Whether it was when I first experienced the marked improvement in my range and endurance after first studying trumpet with Roy Stevens in NYC (blinding me to the amount of work that still needed to be done), or when the demand for my services as a freelance player and arranger filled my musical world (to the point that my own creative projects fell by the wayside), my life would have been quite different had I been more aware of the problem sooner.
Are there natural forces at work when we achieve success that could explain some of this behavior? If so, could the problem be in our DNA?…prehistoric programming telling us to conserve our energy once the “kill” had been made?…for those long forgotten times when we did not know when our next meal would come, or when sudden energy would be required for fight or flight? Or are we somehow compelled to periodically rest…to hibernate after we have what we need? But DNA also tells the shark to keep moving forward, and the tree to keep growing in order to live. So if our programming could be at odds with itself, maybe we should just learn to transcend it altogether.
Fortunately there are great examples of individuals who know how to handle success. Actor-director Robert Redford has talked about the “Dark Side of Success“…and in a recent Esquire magazine interview told of how when he won Oscars for Best Director and Best Picture (for “Ordinary People”), he needed to retreat from the accolades of Hollywood in order to better decide his next course of action. Jazz tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins left for a self imposed sabbatical at the height of his career (or one of them), so he could have more time to practice. I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by some enlightened players when I used to play thirteen big production shows a week at a Harrah’s Hotel (a gig that at first glance did not seem like a good fit for a creative musician). But instead of becoming complacent, or just turning on autopilot, the goal of the band was to make each show better than the last.
And now that attitude continues to serve me well. For example, during a trumpeter’s daily practice routine, the embouchure is set, and the mouthpiece is placed a countless number of times during the session. One could almost not be blamed for a lapse in mental focus during this repetitive yet critical step, which (when done with the fine attention to detail that is necessary for continued growth) is oftentimes called “boring” and “tedious.” But if one feels that way, that usually means he has not yet found in that process the wonder and joy of discovery, and the accompanying strides in improvement. My motto is, “Replace Repetition with Refinement,” which says that each repetition is an opportunity for reinvention. Nothing will change if nothing changes. The person that realizes this and seizes the chance to improve at every opportunity, finds “boring and tedious” replaced by “exciting” and “revealing.” I find it very interesting that students of all ages do not mind taking more care to practice more consciously once they have seen the kind of results that approach produces, and so are less inclined to fall into the traps of success, for they are too busy setting their sights on the next goal. In fact, some students are now suspicious of any improvements they make, until they have taken the time to understand and validate the reasons for any apparent success.
But for most of us, success seems to spawn confidence, even if the success is only a relative success (you are better than before, but there is still room for improvement). Would that explain all of the confident, expert (and often conflicting) opinions offered on the internet (including blogs…like even this one)? Confidence has its place, but it must be tempered with a well grounded humility, based on knowing the truth about the fleeting nature of success, otherwise it can become a kind of foolish pride. The old Proverb, “Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall” (or its better known variant on the right) is as true as ever. In the end we realize there is no end to learning, which is not a sentence to a lifetime of struggle, but a promise of continuous growth…and a reminder that the journey is of more importance than any destination. Nothing in the physical universe is static…change is inevitable. And so, are you growing and learning, or the alternative?