Disappointment is a part of life, and it’s a big part of being a musician. Maybe you blow an audition, or choke on a recital, or make a blatant mistake during a concert. Maybe your audition went well, but you just didn’t get called back. Maybe one of your students decided to study with someone else.
It’s very easy to place the blame for our set-backs on someone else. It’s the cab driver’s fault you were late to the audition and didn’t warm up properly. It’s the stage manager’s fault that the lights were in your eyes and distracted you. It’s your accompanist’s fault for flubbing a note and throwing you off.
This is a normal reaction, and can feel better at first, because that means it’s not your fault that you messed up. But if everyone and everything around you is capable of causing your failures, then you’ll never succeed because you’ll always be at their mercy. By placing the blame for failure elsewhere, you’ve given away your power. Instead, claim power over your own success by owning your failure, learning from it, and moving past it. Here are some ways to do that:
1. Just Breathe.
In most situations, getting angry is not going to help. There’s nothing wrong with being upset at the situation — that’s healthy! But yelling, sulking, hitting the walls, or taking your anger out on friends or strangers isn’t healthy. Take a deep breath or three. Take a step back. Understand that in all likelihood your career isn’t over, things could be worse, and you have a valuable — if painful — opportunity to grow as a musician.
If you’re still really ticked off, upset, or in shock about what happened, you need to find a way to relieve your stress in a healthy way. (Drowning your sorrows at the pub, while effective, is not healthy!) Do something that engages your body and your mind — try yoga, meditation, jogging, martial arts, or hiking. In personal experience, I went to university in the mountains of North Carolina, and I spent many hours hiking when I was upset or working through setbacks. It helped immensely, and was (for me) cheaper and more effective than therapy!
3. Analyze The Problem.
Once you’re calm, try to look at the experience objectively without obsessing or beating yourself up. Go step-by-step and figure out where things went wrong. Did you get nervous and fail to breathe properly? Did you over-work yourself the day before? Did you spend too little or too much time on your warm-up? Were you under-prepared? Did you oversleep? Did you let a small mistake rattle you so much you continued to make bigger mistakes? Were you unprepared for the physical conditions of the recital or concert? Did you have equipment problems?
4. Look For Solutions.
Once you’ve figured out what went wrong, see if you can fix the problem. If you had problems with nerves, perhaps you can start putting on mini-performances for friends or peers to get used to playing with an audience, or develop a warm-up routine that involves some calming and focusing mental exercises. If you were rattled by a mistake, practice making mistakes! Have a friend bump your elbow or move your music while you’re playing and try to keep going. Practice playing in a wide variety of conditions — hot, cold, too dark, too bright, poor acoustics, audience practically in your lap — so when it comes up for real, you’ll be ready.
5. Let Go.
Eventually, you have to accept that the best you can do is the best you can do. At the end of the day, if you have done everything in your power to be successful, then you’ve done your part. You can’t control everything else. If you’ve cleaned and oiled and maintained your valves, but one sticks in the performance, it’s beyond your control. If you’re solidly prepared and play the audition the best you can, but someone else plays it a little better, that’s beyond your control. If you’ve done your very best, you’ve succeeded. Even if the outcome isn’t what you had hoped, the process you went through to be prepared will make you a better musician.
Do you have any tips or stories about recovering from a musical setback or disappointment? Please share them in the comments!