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(Re)defining "Success"

Here's a little something I wish I knew when I was a high school and college student: how you define success will change.

Although I wouldn't have admitted it out loud, most of my definition of success as a college and grad school was tied into my self-worth. It was feelings-based, and most easily attributed to how well I played on any given day.

Playing a fantastic recital made me feel successful.

Botching a technical passage in the practice room made me feel like a failure.

But as I've grown as a musician and sharpened my skills as a teacher, my definition of success is very different than it was even a few years ago.

Here's what changed:


1. The definition of success isn't dependent on the events of any given day

We've heard this a time or two (or ten thousand), but it bears repeating: your definition of success cannot be tied to the practice room or the recital hall. (Separating your ability from your importance as a human is a blog post for another day, but for now, I'll focus on why this is detrimental.)

The problem with having a definition of success that's tied to self-worth and based on feelings is that it varies as much as the reed on your mouthpiece. It's inconsistent, chock-full of mistakes, and has steep learning curves. The most problematic aspect of this way of thinking, though, is that it relies on results and perceptions that are ultimately out of our control.

Helping young people redefine success apart from competition results or college acceptances has been one of the most rewarding aspects of my teaching career.


2. Challenge the thoughts you have surrounding your definition of success. Which are healthy and useful, and which are unhealthy and demoralizing?

Instead of defining success by:

  • assessing growth from arbitrary benchmarks (e.g. "I've been working on this skill for 3 months and it still isn't where I want it to be!")

  • seeing positive results as "wins" and negative results as "losses"

  • holding yourself to an unreasonable standard at the expense of your physical and mental health

Challenge these definitions by:

  • accepting that honing skills is a lifetime goal. No one ever "succeeds" at tone; you grow and mature and develop over time, and the standard gets higher as you grow more and more capable

  • understanding that results are out of your control (I know, sitting in that discomfort is a tough one)

  • giving yourself grace to "drop the ball." Taking time off is healthy for your body AND your brain


3. The definition of success can be multi-faceted and multi-dimensional

I define success differently depending on what aspect of my musical career I'm talking about.

As a performer, I define success as:

  • excellent preparation (score study, listening back to rehearsals, mastering my individual part)

  • musical growth; what did I learn from this experience? What skills have I improved?

As a teacher, I define success for students when they've met these goals:

  • practice goals

    • amount of practice time per day/week

    • consistent practice on specific aspects of their playing; tone, intonation, technique, articulation, etc.

  • performance goals

    • playing at a specific tempo that is beyond their current capability

    • seeing the fruit of their efforts: identifying their growth as an artist from where they started vs. the skills they've cultivated now

  • personal goals

    • when a student sees the potential I see in them

    • when they realize that they are capable of pushing themselves beyond their comfort zone

    • when they develop grit and determination despite being busy with homework, band, sports, etc.

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