Competition

When I think back to the moment that really sparked an interest for me in my musical career, I’ve got to think WAY back. I was sitting in the middle of the second violins in the intermediate orchestra that was part of the Front Range Youth Symphony association in Colorado. It seemed like something fun to do, and I figured I would be good at it – I was already the best violinist in my tiny fifth grade school program, and I hadn’t even had to try. I was able to rely up to this point on my genetics that gifted me a good ear and ability to follow basic instructions.
I couldn’t tell you the exact day that this happened, but it was fairly close to the beginning of the year. I looked up at the conductor in the middle of a particularly emotive section (at least, as emotive of a section that a fifth grade level piece could achieve), and there in front of me was a brother and sister sitting at the first stand. They both moved to the music, naturally, and were so easy to follow. I also noticed our conductor smiling at them a lot, and giving them tons of attention. Oh! Moving to the music must be part of violin playing! I concluded. I began to bob a little to the beat, and allow myself to sway in the musical moments. I even have a memory of telling my father that one of the ways to get better at the violin was to really move one’s body with the music.
“It could also be a way to be incredibly annoying,” he pointed out, which led me on a tailspin to simultaneously move enough for the conductor to notice me, but temper my movements enough so I wouldn’t stick too much out of my section.
The decision to add physical movement into my playing was but a catalyst – the actual idea that made me want to get better at the instrument was the desire to be better than that brother and sister that were sitting ahead of me. They had ideas I never did, and without even knowing it, they offered me inspiration. This was my first fuel of competition.
This kind of internal competition led me to advancing up in the youth orchestra system very quickly. It was a systematic approach: I noticed the kids who did well, and I tried to emulate the things that seemed to get them advanced. I studied their playing as I myself played, and during auditions I tried to think about things that I needed to do better in order to place in front of them. It was a way of thinking that helped me throughout my educational career, and still inspires me today. When I need to think of a relaxed form, a dexterous left hand, or a beautiful bow arm, I have several models of my peers that I can picture, draw upon, and imitate. Competition, for me, has led to inspiration, and my current persona as a violinist is an amalgamation of every violinist who has inspired me before.
Now it’s my turn to teach, and become the kind of teacher that gently pointed out what others were doing well, and how that could help my own playing. It’s an easy leap to say that one of the best ways to learn any trade or skill is to surround yourself with people who are better at said trade or skill than you. You can be inspired, and you can compete with them in your own mind.
Competitiveness has gotten a bit of a bad rap as of late. Kids who are set to compete are also set up for failure. This is a truth, but learning how to deal with failure as a child may strengthen that future adult. It’s only natural to be disappointed in a competitive situation if the outcome isn’t what you had hoped. Learning how to meet that disappointment and let it fuel you to do better the next time instead of letting it break you is a fundamental skill that everyone in any kind of workplace should hone. One of my big goals with my studio this year is to find that magical formula of helpful competitiveness for my own students.

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