Failure is hard. When you have put a lot of effort into something and the results don’t pan out the way you wanted, you experience a little twinge of frustration. If you keep working at it and still don’t succeed, those little twinges can add up into entire arms and legs spastically flailing. It can be even more discouraging if you see others around you winning competitions or getting performances, and without much apparent effort on their part. What’s their secret, you wonder?
I’ve wondered about that all the way through school and into my early professional life. I believe it comes down to three things:
1. Stop comparing yourself to others. Over the years, I’ve had several students who cannot resist the urge to compare the works they’re writing to those of firmly established, older composers. The end result usually involves a few tears and some Kleenex, along with my pointing out that those firmly established, older composers were students once themselves who, like my students, probably had no idea of what magnificent musical concept they would discover five, ten, or fifteen years in the future. (I then have my students study early vocal works of Elliott Carter and George Crumb; neither composer showed many hints early on of what they’d later compose - students usually settle down after that.) Once we learn to stop trying to measure ourselves against other people’s achievements, we get more comfortable with exploring our own unique ideas and abilities.
2. People all around us are not succeeding the first time they try something, and perhaps not the second, third, or fourth time either. We just tend to hear about the time that they do succeed, without knowing how many attempts it took. You probably don’t want to announce when you lose a competition, but when you win one, that’s the time to proclaim it to the world. Use social media, emails, and face-to-face conversations to spread the good news to your family, friends, and colleagues.
3. If you don't do anything at all, you will definitely fail. But if you try, you might succeed. If you don't succeed all the way, you'll keep learning how to be more successful next time.
There are two great quotes attributed to Winston Churchill. The first: “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.” The second: “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” Both quotes perfectly capture what is necessary to persevere in a musical career: unending enthusiasm, a strong work ethic, belief in yourself, and the ability to pick yourself up when you fail, brush yourself off, and try again.