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Interrupting the Comparison Culture by Hannah Weaver

Mar 23, 2022, 08:00 AM by Rhythm Scene Staff

The music world is competitive. Whether it’s competing for a Grammy, a spot in an orchestra, a graduate school T.A. position, or finals in a competition, much of our work as musicians is held up in direct comparison to our peers. While this can serve as motivation and inspiration, it also can take a toll on mental health and happiness. It is essential to find a way to interrupt any negative thought processes and redirect this competitive energy into creative channels.

When we spend our time comparing our achievements with others, it is easy to lose sight of the communal aspect of the music world. It is easy to view the music community as a zero-sum game, imagining that one person’s success is at the expense of others achieving that same result. Instead of begrudging others their success, we should be excited to see others achieving great things, and work to find ways to expand the audience community for music. We shouldn’t fixate on simply competing for existing jobs; we should be envisioning new opportunities.

Granted, this is easier said than done; we all fail into the trap of comparing ourselves to others from time to time. Rather than allowing this to spiral out of control, I propose we work to interrupt the comparison culture. Three simple ways to do this are to know yourself, look deeper, and reframe your perspective.

It’s important to recognize your strengths and weaknesses. Everyone brings something unique to the table. This may be a lyrical sense of phrasing, fast hands, a talent for improvisation, an affinity for memorization, or anything else that musically distinguishes you. Recognizing our natural abilities can allow us to make the most of these talents. 

Likewise, it is important to recognize your weaknesses. This is important not simply because these areas will require more attention, but because they also have the potential to become even greater strengths. Just as you build larger muscles by tearing the fibers so they grow back bigger, you can use targeted practice to correct and improve your weaknesses to make them even stronger. The detailed analysis and intense practice involved in correcting deficiencies can give you a deeper understanding of the issue.

In this digital age wrought with shiny images on social-media platforms, it’s easy to mistake the polished, seemingly perfect images and performances for reality. The fact is, even before the advent of Instagram, TikTok, and Facebook, public performances still had a “filter” applied to them: the practice room. Hours and hours (10,000 hours, according to Malcolm Gladwell) are spent developing proficiency, honing techniques, learning notes, and carefully crafting phrases before mastery can be achieved. Most of the time we don’t see the laborious process of getting something stage-ready, and this can create a distorted metric against which we measure ourselves. 

It’s time to demystify what happens in the practice room and to revel in the messy, ugly, frustrating process of improving. While it may not always be a fun process, it can certainly be satisfying when approached with consistency and a positive mindset.

Perhaps the most important tool in interrupting the comparison culture is choosing to reframe one’s perspective. By viewing situations through a more positive lens, we are empowered to take positive action instead of feeling hopeless or wallowing in disappointment. One of my favorite pieces of advice I received was from Julie Spencer in a master class she was giving at the University of Michigan. A student asked her about her practice strategies for increasing accuracy. In response, Julie said, “I don’t think about practicing until I don’t hit wrong notes; I just think about practicing because I care enough to hit the right ones.”

Instead of worrying about the abundance of things to learn, the hundreds of ways to improve, try to view your development as a musician as an opportunity to continue learning your whole life. Instead of envying another person’s success, be excited to see the arts thriving. Great artists don’t begrudge one another a place in the spotlight; they are confident in their abilities and unique voice and allow others the space to shine as well. By supporting each other and making room for all to reach their fullest potential, we can reap the benefits of a positive community and maintain a healthier relationship with our own art.

Explore this idea further by checking out these incredible Ted Talks:

Hannah WeaverHannah Weaver
serves as Assistant Professor and Coordinator of Percussion at the University of Nebraska–Omaha and is a passionate teacher committed to cultivating her students’ individual musicianship. During the summers of 2016-18, Weaver was percussion fellow with the Aspen Contemporary Ensemble, and she previously attended the Lake George Music Festival, Texas Music Festival, and National Repertory Orchestra. In November of 2018, Weaver advanced to the semifinals in the TROMP International Percussion Competition in Amsterdam. She also placed in the semifinals of the 2009 Paris International Marimba Competition and won the PASIC 2014 Mock Orchestra Competition. Weaver has performed with internationally renowned artists Renee Fleming, Augustin Hadelich, Orli Shaham, Audra McDonald, Jennifer Koh, Sō Percussion, and Carol Jantsch. She has also performed with the Indianapolis Symphony, Kansas City Symphony, Fort Wayne Philharmonic, and Syracuse Symphoria.

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