I was recently asked to clarify something that I said in a previous post. In my blog on the “Negative Psychological Factors of Practicing,” I stated that comparing ourselves to others is a quick way to lead to a negative state of mind. This is a valuable topic because every musician I know has fought these battles at some point. Let’s dig into this idea of comparative listening vs emotional comparison a little more.
Why is comparing yourself to others bad? Well, a simple comparison of your abilities isn’t bad. In fact, a true and honest comparison of skills is a good thing, it promotes critical listening and analysis and gives you a true sense of your performance level, from which you can take steps towards improvement. Comparisons become negative when we inadvertently involve our emotions. Our tendency as humans is to indirectly associate someone’s musicianship and virtuosity with our own inferiority, i.e. because someone else is so good, I now feel like I’m bad or that I could never reach that level of performance etc... By involving our emotions, we allow irrational thoughts/fears/beliefs to wiggle their way into our mental game and create a mental barrier that prohibits our development and progress.
So, what’s the solution?
Practice. At this point you might be rolling your eyes at me but hear me out. You have to actively practice maintaining a healthy mental approach to comparing your skills with others. When you’re practicing accuracy, you have to actively listen to the music for sound discrepancies and you have to actively watch your hands for accurate placement. Likewise, when you’re making comparisons between yourself and others you have to actively pursue a mentality based on critical listening and positive reinforcement, and actively avoid making conclusions based on emotions. And we do that how? First, know that it takes time. Proper technique does not develop after one practice session. Similarly, a consistently positive mental approach to comparisons probably won’t manifest itself in one sitting. But here are a few ways you can set yourself up for success when making comparisons.
1 – Think of it as comparative analysis or critical listening not just comparing. When you approach it with this terminology, you’re automatically setting a precedent of being more analytical/scientific and less emotional in your approach.
2 – Give yourself specific categories that you’ll be comparing. This helps you stay laser focused. When you leave your critical listening sessions open ended during the begin phases of your study, it’s likely you’ll be completely overwhelmed (especially for younger students). By giving yourself 3-5 categories to listen/watch for, you’re able to focus on a less at once, improving your quality of listening/watching. This also helps you realize when you’re getting off topic a little easier. Here are a few things I focus on in my critical listening sessions: Tone quality, color contrast, dynamic contrast, articulation choices, phrasing, tempi, rubato, accuracy, and technical proficiency.
3 – Apply goal-oriented practice to your comparative analysis. When engaging in comparative analysis, make an effort to create a plan to improve on some of the limitations you’ve identified. Maybe you’ve compared your recording to that of another and found that your scales are choppy, slow, or inaccurate. Create a goal and plan for how to improve your scales. E.g. my goal is to increase my scale velocity by 15 bpm by X date. I’ll achieve that goal by daily isolation of the scales in questions and by applying rhythmic variation, speed bursts, and strict preparation in the right hand. Set a reminder to record yourself playing the same piece on X date and have another comparative listening session with your original recording to see if you’ve improved. If you’ve improved, great! You’ve achieved your goal and should be very proud. If not, repeat the process of setting goals and creating a plan of attack. By employing this kind of practice behavior consistently, you’ll quickly learn not only how you learn best, but also what kind of technical and musical ideas you learn quickly or slowly. Both of which are very important qualities to know about yourself.
4 – Look for the positive attributes as well. It seems simple, but we are quick to identify our limitations and slow to appreciate our strengths. For every 3 limitations you identify you should be sure to include a positive attribute to identify in your playing. Figure out why those qualities are your strengths. Did you practice more efficiently on those ideas? Did they come naturally to you? If you can identify your strengths and why they are strengths, you can then apply the same kind of practice methods to your limitations and further develop your performance capabilities.
In conclusion, comparing yourself to others is not inherently bad. Comparing yourself to others within an emotional context is what you want to avoid. Critical listening and comparative analysis are incredible tools to employ as musicians, but you must maintain an honest, scientific approach in your methodology. Categorize what you will listen for, create goals on how to improve based on the limitations you have, and appreciate your strengths as much as you identify your limitations. Engaging in this kind of listening will be one of the best things you can do as a student of music.
Thanks for reading, let me know what you think!
Until next time,