What is success to you? We know what setbacks are, we have all had them. They are a part of being human and an important part of any worthwhile process, but why is it so difficult for us to define, or identify success? As musicians, we strive for perfection even with the full knowledge that perfection is not something realistically attainable in this field. There is no right or wrong, for that kind of absolute result, you have to turn to other disciplines. In music, sometimes the beauty is found or created through imperfection and setbacks.
Is success something that defines your happiness? Of course, we need some form of success as a motivator in life, I believe we are wired this way. What does success in your professional life look like? What does success in your personal life look like? Is being “famous” your idea of success, or is it making a good living doing what you love, feeling fulfilled and leading a meaningful life? There are no right or wrong answers to these questions. It is all about self-reflection.
One of the aspects of succeeding is planning for setbacks and learning to identify them as your path to improvement and eventually achieving your idea of success, whatever that may mean to you.
Pitfalls of Perfectionism:
As I mentioned above, I think musicians have a deep desire to play or sing perfectly, without flaws or imperfections. One of the driving forces pushing us towards perfectionism is listening to studio recordings. They almost always sound flawless. Having been involved in recordings myself, I can tell you that there is so much which can be done digitally to fix even the tiniest imperfection. Even if one note is wrong in one bar, this can be spliced and replaced quite easily. This is normal, and it is part of the recording process. These recordings make for an exciting listening experience, but should not be used as the bar against which you measure yourself. This is when perfectionism becomes harmful to your process. I prefer to listen to live recordings made in front of an audience which show a true representation of what it is like to hear something being done in a performance.
This being said, just going for “good enough” does not lead you to reach the full extent of your potential. Striving for excellence can inspire greater achievements as opposed to perfectionism which is untouchable and never good enough. Seeking perfection and never reaching it can destroy your motivation and have psychological effects on your performance.
The following is a list of things I try to focus on to help me through setbacks or to help me reach my goals.
Setting realistic goals is an integral part of any process. I often talk to my students in terms of the “short game” and “long game” Your short game goal should be achievable within weeks. Let’s say you have a very long phrase to sing. Your short term goal would be to try to do it with a few strategic breaths all the while doing it beautifully. The long game goal, which may happen in 2 months, 6 months, or a year, is to do the phrase in question in one breath. Making smarter goals for yourself will help keep you motivated and when you achieve them, they will give you a reason to be proud, and chances to succeed will grow. Many goals we set for ourselves end up as failures because they are unrealistic and we don’t give ourselves enough time to reach them. So, yes, try to get to the ultimate goal, but do it in stages with challenging and attainable goals in the interim.
There is no such thing as a straight line to success. Setbacks are a huge part of the process. We learn from them, and we become stronger because of them. As you embark on your journey, accept that you will have setbacks -probably many of them. Permit yourself to fail. The only way forward is to work through these setbacks, and to not let them deter you from your ultimate goals. Maybe you sang an audition and you didn’t get the job or you received negative feedback. All you can do is learn from this, ask yourself what is constructive in the experience and what will help you reach your goals. Brush yourself off and get back to work. If you have chosen to be a singer, you have to be aware that you have chosen a highly competitive field where criticism is a big part of your everyday life. Setbacks are guaranteed. What is in your control is how you choose to react to the setback.
If you have attained your goals, playing the short or long game, evaluate and ask yourself why did you achieve them, what was the formula? Sometimes this is hard to pinpoint but worth analyzing the results. This type of self-assessment can help you in setting more goals in the future. As you would do when you complete any project, write a list of what was successful, and what could be improved on in other projects. Celebrate the successes and learn from the setbacks.
You are your own success story:
Success is a personal choice and looking at it as such instead of measuring it against other’s successes, or an unrealistic idea of what success should be will help you find your path. Learn what success means to you. Does it mean a Fest contract in an opera house? Does it mean singing in a professional chorus? Giving voice lessons? Working in an academic function? A change in perspective about your idea of success can lead to greater opportunities for you, and more importantly happiness and a meaningful life. Be willing to evolve, adapt, and change your goals and your ideas of success as you go. As we evolve as people, so do our goals and our idea of what makes us happy. You may have a five-year plan set up for yourself, but many things can happen between year one and year five!
As the saying goes: “Success isn’t final and failure isn’t fatal”. It is how you choose to move forward that counts. The important thing in life is to be happy and fulfilled. As a musician, the peer pressure of being “the best” and getting a lot of work and attention can skew our perception of what success means to us. Remember that failure and setbacks are keys to your success.