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Grit and the Flute

Grit and the Flute | March 2015

    There has been a lot of press lately about the concept of grit, which can be summed up as perseverance against difficult odds. Other words and phrases associated with it are resilience, determination, self-confidence, long-term vision, having a thick skin, never giving up, and getting right back on the horse. As a flutist I have certainly needed a hefty helping of grit over the course of my career in the music world.

Grit and Failure
    How many auditions do you think it might take to win a position in an orchestra? I lost dozens of auditions over almost twenty years before winning one for a major orchestra. I also auditioned numerous times for an excellent local orchestra while in school before being accepted. I was even rejected the first time I tried to get into music school but applied again the next year and succeeded. For graduate music programs, I was turned down by every place I applied so I got a job instead. Careers generally consist of many failures, along with a few successes.
    Rejection and failure are not fun, but they really mean nothing in the long term about you or your playing. You could have zero prospects one day and a job the next. The same audition committee may love you one day and reject you the next. I have found it helpful to consult lists of famous people who had spectacular failures at different points in their lives. It is what you build over the long haul that matters, so just keep on applying, auditioning, brainstorming, practicing, networking, and studying. When you are rejected, of course it is important to try to learn from it and take steps to remedy any issues. At the same time you should go right on to the next opportunity, as if nothing happened. It is exactly the same mentality as when you ignore mistakes in concerts so they do not affect what comes next.

Grit and Being Judged
    As a first-year college student, a pianist friend set up a reading session for the Prokofiev Sonata after learning I played the flute. After a decidedly weak reading on my part, my friend said to me, “I thought you were an up-and-coming young flutist.” At first, I was crushed and insulted. Of all the nerve! However, it ended up igniting an unwavering determination to become a better flutist. Any sort of negative judgment – bad grades, dirty looks from conductors, or a bad review – is a chance for you to develop stronger self-confidence and self-awareness and to work harder.

Grit and Goals
    At my first college band audition, the director asked me what my goals were. I said, “I want to be the best flutist I can be.” I truly meant it. That was my one goal at the time; I never gave a thought to competitions, auditions, or being a professional flutist. I remember the director giving me a skeptical look, and years later, I realized most people must have said something about their career path.
    I think specific and lofty career goals are absolutely necessary and I always have several in the works. However, your overarching goals should always and forever be musical ones: to try to make the music leap off the page, to move the listener to imagine and feel a whole world, to honor the composer’s vision in the very best way you can. These are lifelong musical challenges that are a great joy, but pursuing them to the limit requires the utmost in grit. Because musicality is so personal and all-encompassing, it takes incredible dedication to continually imagine and search for something beyond your own limitations.

Grit and Practicing
    The challenges you face in the practice room mirror the challenges you encounter in the music world, but on a micro, personal level. Practicing involves dealing with setbacks and concentrating on your goals, but it starts with a burning desire to express the music as fully as possible and to conquer the technical issues that get in the way. The refusal to be mediocre – which I found in myself after the Prokofiev experience – is the foundation of musical grit and will give you the strength you need to do the necessary work.
    As with rejection and failure in the outside world, view any playing problems as simply temporary roadblocks and no reflection on your overall abilities or potential. The reality is that there will always be seemingly insurmountable challenges, and excellence is achieved incrementally, in manageable steps. Your current level of achievement does not matter; we are all equal in the face of things we cannot do yet.
    My most recent practicing success is developing a wicked fast triple tongue, for a piece that I have owned since high school and put off learning until last year (Gigue by Georges Hüe). Another item still on my to-do list is learning circular breathing, and it will happen. For especially daunting tasks, take a long view and keep going. The more you feel a sense of mastery with something that originally looked completely impossible, the easier it will be to climb the mountain next time.
    While practicing, you must develop the grit to truly acknowledge and accept when something does not sound good. It is all too easy to ignore a missed note in a scale, vaguely wish that a pianissimo release hadn’t cracked, or give up on ever being able to tongue in the low register. Stopping and acknowledging the issue takes courage. (See “Self-Examination” by Mark Sparks, Flute Talk, September 2014.)
    Then be willing to try to understand and describe the most minute aspects of the displeasing musical situation. This kind of analysis is also something most people naturally avoid, and it takes grit to break down the resistance. Nobody wants to feel incompetent, so it is helpful to keep your descriptions of what you are hearing neutral and specific. This allows you to really dig into the work of what to do to fix this.
    As you practice, the burning desire to make the music wonderful will take you past the urge to give up in frustration. Celebrate every small improvement, listen closely to every failure, and keep believing that somehow, you will prevail. This will lead your practicing (and your musical life in general) to become a highly creative process where all kinds of crazy ideas are flowing and being tested. If nothing is working for a while, determination, resilience, and blind faith will keep you going.

Not Grit
    Grit does not mean ineffectually beating your head against the wall. Sometimes it is better to change course in the face of overwhelming difficulties. For example, I have read that if you are being dragged out to sea by the waves, you should try to swim sideways rather than against the current. If you are horribly blocked with a musical or technical issue, an entire piece, or a career goal, give it a rest, rethink it in a big way, or take a lesson on it with an expert – but change something. 
    Grit also does not mean unrealistic, unhealthy perfectionism. Every time you play there will be many imperfections because we are all human. Grit also does not involve forcing yourself to practice excessive hours or ignoring warning signs like pain and numbness, which can easily lead to physical injury. It is not gritting your teeth, forcing things, or working yourself so hard that you end up with stress and tension, or never feeling good enough.

Beyond Grit
    Determination and resilience only go so far, and musicians should cultivate other important, softer attributes, such as openness to different experiences and ideas, the sensitivity to tap into our emotional core and imagination, and appreciation of the beauty of art, nature, and life. All the finer aspects of humanity are much more important to making music than grit, but we cannot fully develop our potential without it.

Developing Grit
    Can it be learned? I think we all have it, but are stronger or weaker in different areas. For example, someone may stick to their goals but not have the perseverance to fully work out important musical details. Each of us can probably benefit from further developing one or more of these aspects of grit:

    •    Strong desire; goals that mean everything to you; trying for the moon no matter what.
    •    Calm, unshakable belief that you can do it; using rejection and judgment as motivation and learning.
    •    Insisting on and searching for the highest standards; goals achieved one step at a time.
    •    Looking very closely and honestly at what is not working well or sounding good.
    •    Perseverance through tens of thousands of failures, large and small, every day.

    I highly recommend that you read the wonderful classic novel True Grit, by Charles Portis, which was the inspiration for this article. It is not long, and the writing is deceptively simple. It is the story of a young woman in the Old West who sets out to avenge her father’s death. She does not flinch and keeps her vision strong no matter what happens on the wild frontier. Hers is the kind of attitude that will see you through all the ups and downs as you build a fulfilling musical life.