Why failure is as important as success

I failed at this.

I failed at this.

Resilience and inherent intelligence are, to me, the greatest indicators of future success for a classical musician. Success is relative, though - it could mean a “real job” like in an orchestra or higher education, it could mean teaching music privately or in schools, it could mean a combination of many things to pay the bills. Success is always going to mean different things to different people, at different times of their lives.

Young musicians with a ton of natural talent and early success have wonderful opportunities and tend to get ahead of their peers very quickly: they have important developmental experiences at an early age and acquire confidence in their abilities. Yet these same musicians are more likely to fall away and quit as soon as things get choppy and difficult. Their love for the art has not been tested over and over by rejection, as in some of their peers who are slower to develop. The supremely talented are exceptionally fearful of rejection because they rarely experience it in their resilient teens and twenties. In this way, they are actually at a particular disadvantage.

This is difficult to see from the perspective of a student who is always second best, always runner-up, fifth chair, or passed over. It can be very frustrating when your best is only mid-level. Some of these students will quit music, and that is only natural and right. If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. But many of these mid-level musicians will persist, will continue to practice, will continue to be curious and problem-solve. These musicians become the hardest workers, the best colleagues, the thoughtful artists. They know the why’s and the how’s of what they do. They become great teachers and solid performers.

Of course, it bears mentioning that there is nothing wrong with quitting. If you ask enough professional musicians, many of them will tell you about how they either thought about quitting or actually did quit and came back to the craft later. There is nothing wrong with walking away from this line of work. It is difficult, the practicing never ends, it swallows your nights and weekends, it pays poorly, it makes us physically and mentally uncomfortable. Personally, if I see that a student is far away from the skill or talent level needed for a professional career, I steer them away from music over a series of frank conversations. Hard work can’t overcome every talent deficit.

But hardworking musicians who have faced rejection are actually the ideal people to be chasing this career. Keep chasing, keep working, keep dreaming. Be strong.