It is the end of the semester, and if you are anything like me you are feeling the weight of the world on your shoulders right now. You are struggling to study for your final exams, struggling to stay motivated, and nearly in tears because you are emotionally exhausted and just need a break from everything. You are likely either preparing for your juries or dwelling obsessively in the aftermath of your college's concerto competition. You begin to start worrying about everything. Why didn't I do better in my competitions this year? What if I'm not talented enough to make it in the real world? Believe me, I get it. I have been there. I am still there. The pressure of having to constantly compare yourself to others and constantly be worrying about whether you are where you're supposed to be competitively in your studio can be soul crushing. While music should be played for pure enjoyment, it can often get extremely competitive and consume your entire well-being. Most of this competition we face is a result of the self-destructive nature of our own minds; desperately wanting to tell us that we are not enough, we are not strong enough, we are not talented enough. Sometimes I wonder how to shake all of this negativity, and I wonder if it will ever completely disappear. I've come up with some thoughts of ways to become happier with all of this, and to be accepting and loving of ourselves when the going gets tough.
As musicians, we are destined to fail. That may seem like a harsh statement, but I believe it is the first step to acceptance of the fact that not doing well in a competition or an audition does not necessarily reflect our own ability. More often than not, it reflects the thoughts of the adjudicator. You could have a flawless audition or performance with lots of attitude, musicality, and passion and not pass the audition or move onto the next round of the competition. This does NOT reflect poorly on you, it is merely just what the judges were looking for. Sometimes, the reason you don't pass on could be as simple as they didn't like the composer of your piece or something along those lines. When you hear dozens of flawless performances in a row, I believe that simple things like that must begin to come into consideration. Otherwise, how could you possibly choose who will move on? Failure is devastating, no matter how small of a scale it impacts. However, the more times you fail, the more you will begin to achieve mastery. You will learn better each time how you best handle failure, because it is different for everybody. For me, I must let out my emotions. I must vent to people and I often get very upset and do not want to do anything for the next few hours. It is my way of healing, and it is okay. Other people can accept their failures in the most respectful, distinguished way and I cannot emphasize enough how much I admire that. But you must learn that everyone handles it differently, and you must be respectful of each person's method. Each time you fail, you learn something new about things you can work on with your playing. With me, it gives me fuel to work harder and practice more meticulously in a very detail-oriented way. It gives me fuel to prove people wrong the next time I play for them, having fixed all of the criticisms and gained a newfound determination to succeed. However, there is no way to perfect and refine the way you fail other than to keep trying and always remember that you are in a great place, and that you are enough; you are strong enough, and you are talented enough to make it in this world. Always remember that failure not only makes you more determined to succeed the next time, but it also makes you stronger both as a person and as a musician. If every opportunity was always handed to you on a silver platter, you would never develop a strong work ethic and you would never truly appreciate how wonderful success based on your hard work feels. It is one of the hardest things I have ever had to endure, especially when you work so hard on something that doesn't work out for you in the end, but I know that it will all be worth it someday.
Building back up your confidence after an ego blow can be difficult, but it is much easier if you have a strong support system. Find people who can relate to what you are going through, and people who are unconditionally supportive of you even at your worst moments (to all my friends who have seen me as a complete emotional wreck and have offered endless support and wonderful advice: this one's for you). Be appreciative of them, and reciprocate the kindness. No one is perfect, and everyone goes through their own rough spots. Offer the same support and positivity that they have offered you on their darkest days. Remember that no matter how small someone's problems may seem, they are still important because they may be consuming them. Never brush off a friend in need if they are trying to talk to you about something that's upsetting or worrying them. Always offer open arms and always make time for them, and they will do the same for you. Find a strong support system and people who will help build you back up every time you are knocked down. Be to them what you want in someone who supports you, and don't be afraid to walk away from people who don't offer you the same love and support back. You are worth more than surrounding yourself with people who want to see you fall and who want to tear you down.
Lastly, try to remember a great personal victory for yourself. Think of that time you received positive feedback from an idol, when you won that competition, when you received the best compliment from your teacher on how impressed they were at your progress. Hold onto that, even through all of the difficult times. Always remember how good it felt for your work to pay off, and how good it felt to succeed. Keep that feeling, and let it fuel your drive. We, as humans, live to succeed, so when it doesn't happen it can come as a great shock. Remember that taking time to yourself is never something you should be ashamed of after a hard day or a hard week, and giving yourself ample time to rejuvenate from a failure is necessary. At the same time, remember that one little failure is not the end of your world, rather, it is just the beginning. Professional musicians have failed hundreds of times, but those failures have not stopped them from achieving their dream. It is important to experience failure, and it is important to try to not let it consume you. This is often easier said than done, but you will be much happier if you try. I have had my share of not so pretty moments of times where I let failure consume me, but I acknowledge that it is just a part of my healing process and each time it seems to get a bit easier. Do the same for yourself, and forgive yourself for anything you may have done in spite of failure and work towards accepting it more peacefully each time it happens. And on top of everything else, always remember to compliment yourself on things you are proud of or things you think you do very well. No matter what anyone else says, you are the key to your own happiness and you are the only one who has the power to decide how to handle a tough situation. If you tell yourself you are worth it, everyone else will see it too.
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In the field of music, I feel that there is a somewhat prominent complex about learning how to take a compliment. On one hand, if you accept it without question, you fear coming off as pompous and expecting of praise. On the other hand, if you doubt the compliment, you risk appearing insecure and possibly disrespectful to the person giving you the compliment. Personally, I often struggle with knowing exactly how to respond when given a compliment about my playing, my stage presence, or anything relating to music. Are they just saying this to be nice? Do they feel bad for me? These are questions and doubts that often play over and over in my mind in these situations. I feel that young musicians often have such low self esteem that it is nearly impossible for them to hear a good response to their playing because they are so used to everyone being so critical about it. I also believe that it is important to be humble, but you must uphold a certain degree of confidence to back that up so that you don't begin to self-sabotage your career because you feel that you aren't worthy. Every one of you reading this right now, no matter your age or career path, is good enough to succeed in your own field. One of my favorite quotes from my current professor at BGSU is "there is room for you out there", meaning that there will always be a place for you in the field of music. Believing it may be difficult sometimes, but it is crucial that you have confidence in your abilities. People are drawn to confidence, and people remember confident, poised people that they meet.
I personally have had to work a lot on building up my self confidence. My freshman year of college was very emotionally difficult. Like many high school superstars, I had to go through a rather drastic ego check. I came from being one of the top high school flutists in the state of Michigan to the bottom of my studio in college. It was hard for me to watch others get performance opportunities and win competitions when I would be sitting in the audience wishing I was up there performing, or watching them win as I lost. My self esteem plummeted and it took me nearly a year to build it up to where it is today. I still struggle with it a great deal. I am telling this because I know that many, many other students are either going through or went through the same thing I did. Music school can be absolutely soul crushing at times, especially when you invest so much emotionally in things like performing competitively and establishing a name for yourself and things don't always work in your favor. In high school, I would receive compliments as if they were a text message popping up on my phone (quite a frequent occurrence, if you know me). I took them for granted. I was never rude but I certainly could have been more humble. Now, whenever I receive a compliment, my automatic instinct is to overanalyze that person's motives and if it were genuine or not. This all relates back to how much you believe in yourself and your abilities. If you don't believe in yourself, why will anyone else? It seems like a harsh truth, but it is extremely true.
My advice for taking compliments is to always smile and say thank you. Sometimes, that is enough of a response. If you always return the compliment, or find yourself searching for something to compliment about the other person in response, it may come off not very genuine. If you say "thank you" and then precede to list off all of the things that went wrong in your performance or anything negative about what that person was complimenting you on, you may come off as rude and ungrateful. To you, it may seem like you are being humble, but to them, it sounds like you aren't accepting their compliment. The best way to handle a compliment if you aren't sure on what to say is always being genuinely appreciative and gracious. No matter how big of a name the person is (i.e. Jeanne Baxtresser or a middle school flutist you met at a clinic), compliments are extremely meaningful and you must treat each as such. After all, who doesn't love hearing positive feedback about themselves? It is an extra little reminder that you are loved. :)