My high school students have spent the past several months mastering three etudes in preparation for TMEA All-State auditions. Despite the talent and level of dedication, the repertoire is challenging for the vast majority of students.
After spending months mastering and honing every note, rhythm, and articulation with relentless detail, there is the small matter of then performing in front of the foreboding curtain which separates the student from the panel of judges. Surrounded in a room of their peers, students must execute every detail of the music with utter perfection. The performance is then scrutinized by a panel of highly-trained experts, who then choose the best students (a very small handful) to advance. The process continues with higher stakes at each round, until four saxophonists are chosen to make the Texas All-State Band.
In case you didn’t catch that last part: FOUR saxophonists make All-State. Four. Out of several hundred if not thousands.
As my students come out of the first round of auditions, I can tell how they performed based on their posture. I dread the sight of the low-hanging head and the look of defeat on their faces. I understand and sympathize with their frustrations: “I sat down to play and got really overwhelmed”; “I started to panic when I heard how well other people played”; “I started out great and then made a mistake that cost me.”
What do we say to students that have put in the work and prepared diligently, having attended masterclasses with university professors, and having sought the advice and feedback from their peers and experts alike, when they don’t perform at their highest capability? What do we say to those students to help them over disappointment?
The answer is simple: embrace the process, not just the result.
It is incredibly easy to let results be the sole dictator of our self-worth. How many times have I walked out of an audition or performance that didn’t go well and berated myself for it, reliving every negative detail and beating myself up mercilessly? If I’m honest, it is more times than I care to admit. On the flip side of that, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve walked out of a less-than-perfect audition and congratulated myself on the hard work I put in, regardless of the result.
If we embrace the process of practicing: the hours of concentration and preparation, the years of long tones, articulation studies, vibrato exercises, fingering drills, interval practice, breathing studies, etc., the weight and enormity of the audition result is alleviated. After all, from a strictly objective standpoint, what is judged is merely a few minutes of playing that took years to create. A fraction of a snapshot, really. How radical and amazing would it be if our students (and ourselves) could look back at a performance and honestly say “I’m really proud of myself” even if the outcome is not ideal? How beautiful, intelligent, and well-rounded would we be as human beings if we put far more energy into congratulating ourselves on our level of dedication and passion for the instrument instead of relying on a grocery-list of our favorite achievements to give us a feeling of self-worth? Even our best performances are not perfect, which only feeds the self-deprecating monster that says “you’re not good enough.” And if we stay in that mindset, we will never feel fulfilled.
If we can teach our ourselves to love the process of music-making, we can teach our students to love the process as well.