Staying Positive & Redefining Success/Failure

I’ve been really busy lately, and very tired. Even though I’m tired, I still have to keep practicing. There have been plenty of days where I have been tempted to just skip a practice session and lie around on the couch watching television, or spend time with my family. I knew that regaining the ability to play at a high level would be challenging, and I was also prepared to make sacrifices. Probably the most difficult sacrifice has been to give up that extra bit of sleep or rest. Last year, I wasn’t really practicing that much. I would get home from work and normally choose to be lazy. Now, I’m waking up earlier to fit in a warm-up session everyday, I’m practicing every chance I have at work, and I’m also setting aside an hour in the evening to practice at home. It’s a relentless schedule, because I have something to do at every moment, whether it’s teaching, practicing, preparation for teaching, research, etc. I’m physically and mentally exhausted, because I am working harder than I ever have before. And trust me, I have bad days. Days where I just don’t feel like doing anything, or days where things just go completely wrong. In the past, these days would have discouraged me, and I probably would have just given up for that day, or for the entire week, maybe even the entire month. I knew what I wanted back then, but I just didn’t really have the drive, the belief in myself, or the belief in my plan, which is the most important thing right now. The difference between now and even a year ago is the fact that I have a plan. A detailed plan with both short and long-range goals; however, this plan looks and feels a lot different from the one that I had in Graduate school.

The short-range goals are things that are attainable. Like, developing and following a practice routine for each day, working through some anxiety issues, performing with others, working a specific piece or technique, etc. I have also had to redefine my definition of both success and failure through this process. Before, success was being perfect, and being perfect meant that I had a chance to win that job. If I didn’t get that job, then I was a failure. The very first orchestral audition that I took, I almost won. I finished runner-up, and afterwards, I expected to find success again and win a job. Each subsequent audition that I did not win began to weigh on me. My definition of success was winning a job, and I kept folding under the pressure. It wasn’t that I couldn’t play at a high enough level, it was the fact that I was putting too much pressure on myself. After not winning an audition, I would come back and practice even more, because I believed that something was wrong. I wanted to be perfect, and this pursuit led to a couple of things. It ultimately drove me to my injury, and it also drained the fun out of playing horn.

So, here’s the big question: How do you stay positive, when all you do is fail? This was what kept me down for so long. I believed that I was a failure, because I had not achieved my version of success. So, changing my perspective was the first step. Then, I had to redefine my version of success. Of course, I want to play at a high level and perform in all different kinds of settings, but, is that really success? Am I successful if I win a job in an orchestra? Am I successful if I obtain a full-time job at a university? At some point, I realized that I had to stop measuring my success through the trajectory of my career. I just wanted to have fun again. I wasn’t playing horn that much, and when I did, I was not enjoying it. My primary focus since reaffirming my dedication to the horn has been trying to find that gratification of doing something that makes me happy. If I’m enjoying myself, then I know that I’m on the right track. It doesn’t matter if I miss notes, or if I don’t win an audition, or if I don’t even get called to play gigs anymore. I’m doing this for myself, and no one else. That may be selfish, but I’ve spent too much time worrying about what others think.

Focusing on having fun has allowed me to stay positive when things get tough. Also, I’m setting different goals for myself that revolve around having fun. I still want a college job, but that isn’t the measure of my success anymore. Instead, I’m focusing on playing in chamber groups, which is something that I really enjoy. I’m writing and arranging music (and being published!). I’m practicing so that I can play/perform certain pieces, not just so that I can win a job. I’m conducting a horn ensemble and also writing music for said ensemble. I’m doing research again. I’m also focusing on becoming a better teacher for my private students. These are my goals, but they are also things that I want to do, as well as things that make me happy and that I enjoy. Whether or not these endeavors land me a university or orchestral job is a moot point. The main question that I have to ask myself: Do these things make me happy? If I’m happy and having fun, then I’m a better person, more confident, and more invested in my life.

If you’re not having fun and enjoying yourself, then something is wrong. Throughout my own process, I’ve been determined, and I set a practice regimen that I follow religiously, but I don’t know if I could have made it this far if I weren’t enjoying myself. I already tried doing this for the money and the job before, and that failed. My advice is that if you can’t find a positive personal reason for doing something, whether it’s a job or other interest, then you’re only going to get so far. Money isn’t everything. A job isn’t everything. Sometimes we need to do it for ourselves. I tried to live without the horn, and music in general, and it made me miserable. So, find out what’s important to you, and figure out a way to set goals that will and should lead to success, but without sacrificing your happiness and well-being. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there, because you never know if you’ll succeed if you’re too worried about failure.


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