Strive to be the Worst Look for growth situations even if they're intimidating

Students have often come to me asking if they are “ready” for a musical situation. Whether it be an audition, adjudication, festival, accompanying gig, college program, a certain ensemble, a tour, etc. – my answer is always the same… Participate in as many musical situations as possible where you are the worst one. Be musically overwhelmed as much and as often as possible. We grow the most from these experiences. And if we are taking lessons, earning a degree or just trying to be the best version of ourselves that we can be; growth is the most important thing we can aspire towards.

Miles Quintet

View video of performance below

Depending on the situation, I use different phrases to communicate the point. Here are some of my standby’s:

  • Always be a freshman
  • Be the one who has to practice the most for a situation
  • Be uncomfortable as often as possible
  • Find peace and confidence in the unknown
  • Walk away from musical experiences knowing that you have a lot of work left to do

I’ve found that if students embrace the unknown and are regularly in situations that are just beyond their grasp musically, they get the most out of their lessons. They come to the lessons with amazing and profound questions. They want to know everything they can to be ready for the next opportunity they get. They also improve at a rate that is beyond students who don’t put themselves in these situations.

Sometimes in the lessons they need pep talks and encouragement. They need to be reminded that they do many things very well and that their experience where they felt overwhelmed only reflected on a small part of their musicianship that needs work. In the big picture, they are on track.

One of my favorite things that comes from this sort of approach when learning is that students genuinely experience a positive apprenticeship. They either perform at festivals, play in ensembles, accompany peers who are ahead of them. If their attitude is good even when they struggle, the more accomplished peers will often work with them and help them elevate their playing and musicianship. Then when they get in situations when they are the most experienced, they can gracefully and thoughtfully take on those roles in a way that communicates the concepts they found most helpful when they were the apprentice.

One of my favorite stories about this very thing is when Miles Davis formed his famous quintet with Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams, Ron Carter and Wayne Shorter. Miles was quite a bit older than the rest of the band. He noticed that they supported Wayne Shorter way differently than they did Miles. Miles asked them why they didn’t play like that behind him. In an interview Herbie said it was because they thought Miles couldn’t keep up with the new things they were doing. They finally supported him the way they did Wayne one night and Miles got totally lost. He went back to the hotel and listened to the recording. The next night they did it again and he was ready – he lost the band. They spent many years touring. It was a tradition for everyone in the band except Miles to go listen to the recordings of the shows post-gig in a hotel room and Miles would go to his room and do the same… They kept trying to push each other for years of touring and recording.

Many people (students and teachers) want to protect themselves from these situations. We worry that it will make us hate playing music or that the more accomplished peers will belittle us when we are the worst one. These are totally valid fears and I still feel these when I’m in over my head. But I’ve found it’s rarely the case. And the people who act this way towards us when we struggle are such a small percentage of the people we cross paths with, it’s easy to know who to avoid and who will be a positive influence in these situations.

If we start this early enough with students or ourselves, they/we get hooked on being in growth situations. A big downfall of the way many of us were taught is that it was easy to get hooked on winning situations or “being the best” situations. Those don’t help anything improve except for our egos. Be the worst and stick with that approach. Before you know it, there will be very few instances where you feel uncomfortable and the music will flow from you in any situation.

(If you can’t see the video click here)