Quality of Competition

Given my week has been punctuated by frequent visits to the nearest television to watch Olympics coverage, it was perhaps inevitable that there would be an Olympic theme to this week’s blog post. Sporting metaphors might be the one of most overused rhetorical devices, but perhaps that’s because they supply a less confrontational framework to talk about something that is common to all sorts of fields, and pursuits: competition. Coverage of an event like the Olympics – most especially when the sporting action is combined with the incessant cutaways to the “journey to the games” interviews, or the thematic advertising – highlights the sort of twofold competition that every athlete in the games faces. On the competition day they are up against their rivals in their chosen event; but in the weeks, months, and years before hand they are competing against the desire to settle with the standard that they are at, rather than continuing to train and improve in the fractional ways that can be the difference between sporting glory, and going home empty handed.

The application of this same kind of mentality to being a musician doesn’t require much of a stretch. Thinking about the idea of “competition” in events like gymnastics and diving, though, seemed most pertinent. In this situation there are competitors, but they don’t affect the athlete in the same way that someone pushing up in the lane next to them might do. In these kinds of events I wondered if the biggest challenge might not be in maintaining the mental discipline to ignore external factors like the performance of competitors and keep focus on the product of countless hours of individual preparation and training. Indeed, though these events produce winners and losers in terms of the score they achieve and the ranking this gives them, the relationship between the athletes in these events does not resemble the combative kind of competition. What the athletes do isn’t (or shouldn't be) in reaction to each other.

Perhaps musicians, then, face more of that competition with their own desire to be satisfied with their achievement. I don’t mean to suggest that automatic dissatisfaction with the work that we do is a requirement: if we’ve worked hard and achieved something commendable then that’s something to be pleased about. Perhaps more accurately the distinction is between being satisfied and being self-satisfied, the former suggesting the possibility in improving that the latter shuts out before a wall of arrogance. So much of the work we do in reviewing repertoire that we have performed repeatedly over the years is concerned with the kind of fractional improvements that can only be made if they are grounded in the belief that continual improvement is not only possible, but necessary for our continued growth as musicians. I found myself contemplating the absurdly imbalanced ratio of preparation time to duration of routine in some of the astonishing gymnastics performances I watched this week. Somewhat sheepishly contemplating what my own preparation to performance ratios might be certainly gave pause for thought.

Competition is undoubtedly part of what makes up the life of a professional musician. In a world full of extraordinarily talented people this can be a daunting prospect for those of us building or sustaining a career. However, though our “rivals” are out there, like in the gymnastics competition, they tend to have very little to do with the results that we can achieve for ourselves: results that are the sum total of that fascinatingly complex calculation of preparation and the unexpected that makes live performance so thrilling.