Everyone deals with rejection sometime in their lifetime, and musicians more than most. Five professional flutists share how they learned to cope with it and use the disappointment to their benefit.
University of Idaho
The competition has concluded, and the judges have made their decision. The finalists line up on stage, and prizes are announced. The first-prize winner breaks out in tears of joy, and the others put on their game faces. Everybody shakes hands.
This scene plays out over and over, and I am always impressed with the graciousness of the second, third, and non-prizewinners. It is not easy to keep one’s composure in public. These contestants act exactly as they should. Envy, one of the Seven Deadly Sins of the Middle Ages, gets one nowhere. The flute world is small relative to most other professions, and chances are, the finalists will be working with each other later in life, so it is important to maintain good professional relations.
Besides, not winning a competition or audition does not necessarily mean that a performance is worse than others. The finalists can all be excellent in different respects. How do adjudicators or audition committees choose between a performer who relishes in technical display and drama and one who shows taste, subtlety, and sensitivity to style?
Failure in competitions, auditions, job applications, grant applications, and botched performances stings. However, most people at the top of their game – the greatest musicians, actors, sports figures, scientists, etc. – have had more misses than hits. In fact, a recent article by Tim Herrara in The New York Times suggests that people should keep a “failure résumé,” as the counterpart to a traditional CV “because you learn much more from failure than success.” Such a record allows one to analyze failures and make improvements. The most successful practitioners of any field are not deterred by setbacks but instead use them to identify and overcome weaknesses. For instance, as a student, I was told intonation was my Achilles Heel, so I worked with a tuner and a tape recorder, practiced solfège, invented tuning exercises, read about tuning systems, and did anything I could think of to turn a fault into a strength.
Learn something from every experience, whether it is drinking less coffee before your next audition or restructuring practice sessions and slowing down for greater accuracy. Seek out honest feedback from a teacher, friend, audience member, fellow student, or adjudicator. You need good feedback, so get the best teacher you can and surround yourself with great musicians. Rather than internalizing disappointments, it is much healthier to talk through them with someone you respect.
Psychologist Carol Dweck identifies two basic mindsets, “fixed” and “growth.” Those holding a fixed mindset believe that ability, talent, or intelligence are immutable traits. People with a growth mindset think that these traits can be substantially improved with hard work. These beliefs are developed early in life but can change. Some parents continually praise their children for being smart or talented, which often leads to a fixed mindset, while other parents praise their children for hard work, leading to a growth mindset. People with fixed mindsets do not react well to failure, as it only confirms an “I’m not talented” voice in their minds. People who adopt a growth mindset can more easily bounce back from failure, as they envision themselves developing the skills necessary to triumph. Fixed mindset people are risk averse; growth mindset people seek out challenges.
This ability to dust yourself off and keep going is what Dweck calls character or what Angela Duckworth calls grit. (Duckworth is an American psychologist and researcher who wrote the best-selling book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.) She has found that grit is the most important ingredient of success, far outweighing natural ability. She presents many examples of highly successful people who overcame their natural disadvantages to climb to the top – mathematicians who failed their first math class, basketball players who were shorter than their peers, and baseball hitters who started with an awkward swing. Grit takes an intense initial interest in an activity and sustains the passion and drive over the course of many years. It is a relentless pursuit of long-term goals, often in the face of adversity.
One must develop the ability to be self-critical without being judgmental. Duckworth points out that our culture associates failure with shame, which is an unnatural association. Preschoolers try all kinds of things at which they fail – from learning to walk to building a wall out of blocks. There is no shame in their failed attempts, and they try again until they get it right. To be successful, musicians must unlearn the feeling of embarrassment from setbacks and go for that next audition.
It is also important to forgive yourself for mistakes. You are human, and even the greatest players have off days. The trick is to prepare so thoroughly that even bad days still meet a high standard.
Setting the proper long-term goal is key and provides a guiding principle. The goal should be clear but not too specific. For instance, a goal of becoming principal flute of the New York Philharmonic is impractical since this particular job might only become available once in a lifetime, and you might have a bad day at the audition. A more flexible, but still lofty goal, might be to secure a position in a major orchestra or even to find a career that puts the flute at the center of your life.
Your attitude towards competition shapes how you deal with it. My teacher Robert Willoughby told me not to listen to other players at an audition but rather to focus on what I wanted accomplish. Think of competing with yourself, not against others, as you have no control of what they do.
In the end, failure forces us to examine what we really want out of life. Ask yourself if you really have the passion for doing this? If the answer is yes, find a way to cultivate your abilities further. If the answer is no, then you have discovered something important and can decide to take a different path towards happiness.
Baltimore School for the Arts
As I reflect back upon past rejections from the comfort of the present, I can easily admit those painful events truly shaped my life. As a young professional, I grappled with paralyzing performance anxiety as I embarked on the path of taking orchestral auditions. I thought I was doing everything humanly possible to prepare for a successful outcome. In addition to countless hours of practicing and painstakingly detailed coachings, I explored many alternative methods to overcome my ever-increasing audition performance nerves: hypnosis, Alexander Technique, beta blockers, and every self-help book I could get my hands on. Long before the advent of the internet, such illuminating resources were limited. Struggles were shared with trusted friends in hushed tones. Almost worse was the cloud of shame that never quite disappeared following another crushing defeat. As I reminisce about some of those bleak earlier days, it is almost embarrassing to admit how long it took to escape from that vicious cycle of self-doubt. Once I began to trust myself and recognize some unlikely teachers and guides along the way, I was able to pull myself up from this funk and come out on the other side. It took years of soul searching, coupled with real life experience, to realize those rejections were actually laying the foundation for far more precious gifts yet to emerge.
While I took my fair share of auditions, it certainly was not enough to develop the consistency necessary to demonstrate my best work in the allotted five- to ten-minute time span. Despite repeated audition disappointments, I was determined to better my skills and cultivate a freelance career. Miraculously, those troubling self-doubts remained at a distance during actual performances. In fact, I relished the opportunity to perform concerts with little or no rehearsal, probably because there was no time to ruminate over the loop of negative voices running through my head. Plus, any rehearsal or concert was almost a party in comparison to another, usually costly, cattle call audition. In time, working with supportive and inspirational colleagues cultivated a wealth of musical ideas and fresh approaches. My consistency improved with, well, consistent performances. I welcomed the challenges of a four-week run of a national touring show (4 weeks x 8 shows + 2 rehearsals= play it perfectly 34 times in a row.) I learned to become more introspective and competitive with myself so I could eventually trust my inner voice.
Raising three children provided a multitude of opportunities to redirect the attention away from my intense, even myopic, preoccupation to further my career. With practice time now measured in precious fragments, I devised ways to adapt and deepen my focus in order to accomplish more in far less time. My family’s care and best interest became my top priorities. All three kids soon became involved in musical activities, especially my string player daughters, both members of several youth orchestras. I now realize there were 20 consecutive years of shuttling to and from lessons, sectionals, rehearsals, musicals, concerts, and, yes, numerous auditions. Again, that irritating audition monster reared its ugly head. I do not know which was more challenging: supporting their practice preparation, delivering them to the audition destination while making attempts to redirect their escalating anxieties, or ignoring the excruciating din of other instrumentalists in the common warm up area. While I had adjudicated many students at countless competitions and auditions, it was a totally different perspective experiencing this atmosphere as a parent. From this point of view, I revisited flashbacks of auditions past. Then there was the ride home, as I attempted varying approaches to soothe their often agonizing frustrations and tears. After all, I could empathize with every morsel of their audition experience. We finally rationalized that jumping through these audition hoops was a necessary procedure to realize their goals to perform the great orchestral repertoire with first-rate players. We realized that each participant grappled with similar fears, and the judges were pulling for them to play their very best. Disappointments were confronted with courage, support, and the assurances of other opportunities ahead. Together we learned that genuine confidence is earned by taking such risks, and the rewards were well worth the trials of the audition process.
While my son was active in school bands, he was also a member of his high school cross country and track teams. This was my first exposure to competitive school athletics. I quickly surmised that the coach was equivalent to a conductor, and displaying good sportsmanship was no different than acting as a supportive musical colleague. The main difference was that each member was judged solely by the clock. Only the top runners were invited to join a team or qualify for elite races. Unlike music, results were rarely disputed because they were based on concrete measurements, and each meet was unpredictable and dependent upon physical preparation, conditioning and mental toughness. Since they occurred on a weekly basis, there were regular opportunities to measure and improve one’s standing. Less energy was expended on comparing one’s performance to another team member because a personal best time was considered the ultimate achievement. The correlations between the athletic and musical worlds continue to affect my perspectives on motivation, perseverance, self-reflection, and resilience.
These rich experiences with my children have carried over to my teaching career. My students and I work hard to lay a strong foundation of fundamentals, experiment with time-effective practice strategies, and craft a list of goals. I still receive immense joy when a student experiences genuine pride while accomplishing a previously insurmountable goal, takes part in an exceptional musical event, or achieves well-deserved recognition. However, each path does not include a consistent and upward trajectory. All of the planning in the world cannot prevent a disappointing performance or audition experience.
Students of every age and ability can be deeply affected by results from their school’s band and orchestra seating auditions. In fact, I have encountered many people who have carried such defeats with them for decades. Even though the agonizing episode took place in their youth, the memories are still vivid and hurtful. It takes considerable maturity to be circumspect with one’s playing, recognize strengths and weaknesses analytically, and be able to separate the musical skill set from the person.
Ensemble directors are often placed in an awkward position if a student or parent is dissatisfied with the results. Such directors are often accused of playing favorites or simply labeled unfair. I have several colleagues who hold blind auditions to avoid such monikers. Auditions for some youth orchestras can be highly competitive, especially those in heavily populated areas. Some might have over 50 flutists vying for four slots. If a student is successful, of course there is a celebration. When students are rejected, however, it is often necessary to seek out alternative playing outlets to reclaim their love for playing. Chamber music and flute choirs can provide enriching and reaffirming musical opportunities. It is vital to support and provide genuine encouragement when the path takes an unexpected detour.
Sometimes it can be a challenge for students, parents, and teachers alike when the final results of a competition or audition reflect an abysmal outcome. Perhaps that result is only second place, which can seem like a failure to some. Here is where the artistic merits can be impossible to gauge. When I am a judge, I make every attempt to portray an honest and fair assessment while offering constructive criticism, but we all view every performance from a different vantage point. I have seen this proven time and again when I have judged competitions. Often the panel is faced with a split decision while selecting a winner and must negotiate to reach an amicable conclusion. As teachers, we should make every effort to control how and where we express our emotional reactions to a possibly unfavorable outcome. Final results for any competition can have far reaching negative effects if disgruntled teachers or players vent their frustrations on social media. Indeed, many times I have longed for a performance that could be accurately assessed by my son’s stop watch. The healthiest solution is to try to learn from every experience and then move on to another goal as swiftly as possible. Rather than ruminating on losses and defeats, which only exacerbate the emotional toll, seek out effective coping skills. There is usually one winner. While it often requires a Herculean effort to be a graceful loser, it is always the best choice. Remember, other opportunities will lie ahead.
Life is too short to dwell on rejections. They will present themselves in various forms including the loss of auditions, competitions, dream jobs, and even personal relationships. Each rejection is significant and should be faced with honesty and candor. Know that every rejection can act as a catalyst to create unlimited opportunities to become a more generous and compassionate human being. Rely on imagination and creativity to cultivate positivity when you face dark times. Do not allow others to define who you are as a musician or a person; trust your immeasurable powers. Count your blessings and be grateful always.
One of the privileges of coping with rejection is the opportunity to self-evaluate after being denied fulfillment of one’s dream. This can happen on the same day after receiving the news, or gradually in the weeks ahead. Disappointments are common among musicians. They deepen our sensitivity and strengthen our resilience if we manage them well. Allowing oneself a pity party of self-indulgence may be the best response initially. However, making space to take personal responsibility and seek out new opportunities to set future goals is the best long-term strategy.
I am struggling to narrow down my rejections to only a few – there have been so many! While in high school, I auditioned for a prominent youth orchestra that regularly performed in Carnegie Hall. I was denied by the conductor who, ten years later, appeared on the podium for a week as a guest conductor for the Pittsburgh Symphony. During the first rehearsal break I introduced myself and explained how he had crushed my hopes and dreams with his decision, loud enough so that some of my colleagues could hear. It was deliberate, awkward, and very cathartic. He was charming in his acknowledgement that he could see I was over it now, which I clearly was not. He only saw a crazy person who held a grudge, but didn’t want to fuel the conflict.
For me, turning disappointments into humorous situations is part of building a story that is only partly based on facts. There were real reasons I was not chosen for the position: my Firebird was rough, and others simply played better in their auditions. My blaming him at the time for a decision that he was justified in making did not improve my playing. The determination that followed did, and so did the ability to spin the story in a creative way. Sometimes the way we choose to cope or develop a new skill is the benefit. Sometimes the process of preparation leads to a higher overall level after the audition is complete.
I entered an international competition in Paris when I was 25. Having diligently prepared all rounds over a six-month period, I was fully ready to be tested and enthusiastic to participate in each stage. Upon being informed that I did not pass to the second stage, I wandered around Paris for a week eating chocolate mousse and cheese. I bought a fancy cashmere scarf at Hermès and generally felt sorry for myself. When I returned home and started practicing again, I noticed that I could do things that I had not been able to do six months prior to the competition. My tone, technique, and musicianship had improved. I played with greater ease and flexibility. I organized a recital to play the new repertoire I had learned and after a few weeks came to an important conclusion about my long-term process. The reward of hard work may be the new level of accomplishment in playing before success or recognition catches up. When I realized that I had to be in it for musical benefits, I accepted decisions without taking them personally. Magically (or not) more opportunities opened up. Years later, I still wear the scarf which has become a symbol of my fabulous imperfection!
Brigham Young University
Confronting rejection is part of the human condition. It is a simple matter of mathematics when multiple people want what can only be given to one. However, there is much in the nature of what musicians do that exponentially drives comparison, competition, and the making of snap judgments about ourselves and others.
I remember a conversation that helped me formulate this certainty. Decades ago, I was talking with a computer software engineer who was thinking about a mid-career change of employer. He said that what worried him the most about the job search was how difficult it would be to give anybody a good idea of what exactly he did. He commented, “In a way you’re quite lucky. Non-flutists and non-musicians can hear you play and know right away that you are skilled. Even if they only have a moderately good ear for music, they can be impressed quickly. But for me, if I want to explain to somebody what I do, I have to show them hundreds of pages of computer code and explain what it is in these pages of code that proves I am good at it. Most likely the administrator I’m talking to will have little idea of how to decipher what I’m telling him.”
The transparency of performance is a double-edged sword. Musicians can almost instantaneously convince people they are accomplished in their field. On the other hand, they often find themselves in situations where their entire worth seems to be summed up by an experience lasting five to ten minutes. Rejection can come so quickly that it feels surreal, shocking, and even devastating.
One Moment in Time
In this era of social media and readily available cameras on every smartphone, it is easy to realize that a photo is only one moment in time. You would never look at a photo of yourself and believe that it perfectly sums up all you are as a person. Auditions are rather like photographs. Musicians do themselves a great disservice when they expect an audition to summarize all of their strengths and weaknesses. In the space of a few minutes, the judges can never learn everything about players or their abilities. When you are rejected, think of the audition as a brief snapshot. It is too easy to feel that we have been discarded all the way through to the core of our being. Recognize instead that it is actually a small number of judges reacting to one particular moment and preferring a moment given by someone else, instead. It does not sum up your worth as a flutist, artist, or human being.
Also, remember that when you finish auditions and competitions, only one person is truly happy: the person who won the position or received first place. Second, third, and honorable mention winners are usually not happy. They should be, given how many will walk away without any recognition, but everyone, of course, only wants first place.
When you find yourself sitting on the other side of the judging table, competitions look quite different. Sometimes judges are unified regarding who the winner should be. That is a very good day of judging. More often, however, they are not. I have sat on panels of judges where three were in agreement, while the other two had entirely different opinions from everyone else, including from each other. If the panel had been three judges rather than five, the outcome might have been completely different.
There are also often factors you are unaware of. The first time I was hired to play in an orchestra was in fifth grade for a children’s production of Charlotte’s Web. I was the only flutist to be selected for the pit orchestra. The following year I auditioned again, but was not selected and was devastated. I wondered why they did not want me again. However, I later learned that there were no flutes in this production – the musical score simply did not require flutes. The decision had nothing to do with me at all. My ego was bruised for absolutely no reason. This kind of situation happens more often than we realize.
Rejection Leads to Success
My students who experience the most success also experience by far the most failure. The key is in trying again and again. If you approach failure humbly, you will learn from each new taste of it, and your percentage of victories will go up over time. However, the world is filled with talented and accomplished flutists. While this is wonderful, it means that in addition to having a sensitive artist’s soul, you must have a thick skin.
What helps to develop this thick skin is a fierce belief that you have something important to say and a burning need to express it through music. If you believe in yourself, you have every reason to continue developing your career. Music is difficult. The only reason to do it seriously is if it is the only path you can picture yourself taking.
Learning from Failure
All opportunities provide valuable information, and you should only let go of one in order to choose another that is better. You will soon discover that you have more success with certain opportunities than others. Rejection can help you learn your strengths and perhaps find a place in music where you are in demand.
When I lived in New York City, I learned that I was good at playing newer music with extended techniques, complicated rhythms, and experimental elements. Composers kept asking me to play their music. As I found success doing this, I realized that I should pursue further opportunities in this area.
The University of Texas at Austin
No – a little word that packs such a punch. We dread it. It makes us feel unworthy – a failure. Children say that word very early. Sometimes toddlers seem to repeat it on a loop track – it gives them power, some control, and lots of reactions. At some point, however, the word changes from a statement of power to a fear above all others. It can feel like everything is crashing down around you. No, you do not want me for the job? No, you do not think I’m good enough? Committees and judges do not know how great you were yesterday in the practice room, how hard you worked, how much you want it, or how many sacrifices you have made. It is so important to remember that they only see a snapshot of the whole you.
You cannot win if you do not play. You enter the race, the competition, the audition and try. You play and take your chances on that moment in time. There are of course the non-negotiable skills of rhythm, intonation, and other expected qualities to demonstrate, but there are also differences in preferences in orchestras and players. Even within orchestras or studios there is variety of thought, sound, and expression. This dizzying array of variables and the accompanying appraisal and assessment can feel mysterious or even overwhelming, but it is this complexity and diversity that might fuel your progress and development.
The truth is that you know your work, your ethic, and your process. You are your best critic and teacher but also often your harshest critic. It is upsetting to hear someone talk negatively to a small child, but we speak that way to ourselves all the time. What if you spoke to yourself in a gentle toddler-like way? Congratulate yourself on your effort and progress and explain the reality that successful outcomes can be finicky and elusive, and there is typically only one first prize.
You might logically understand that swarms of flutists are vying for a position and that it is a lottery of sorts – even though it is one that takes hard work, sacrifice and a strong dose of talent and good luck. However, even when you understand that the odds are not in your favor, your emotional self just wants it so much that it can make you feel personally rejected or attacked.
Musicians pour their hearts and souls into their art and leave some of themselves on that stage for all to see and hear. If you succumb to overwhelming negativity, you empower it. By contemplating and organizing feelings and goals, you might surprise yourself with a reframing of personal expectations and ambitions and feel excited for new possibilities.
Musicians seek endorsement, encouragement, and belonging, but the no will come – and does much more frequently than that beautiful yes. Remember that the no is a snapshot – it does not define you but does allow a chance to reflect, modify, and focus. Make a practice of counting all the times you hear (or tell yourself) no in a day, especially in practice sessions. Make a game of eliminating them and instead institute a series of directives that form helpful, affirmative habits. Keep a scorecard and actively shift those items to the positive side.
Winning is an easy-to-imagine short game. Perseverance is the long game created by having a vision, being relentlessly persistent, and by taking one step at a time. Remember how a toddler’s first crawl, word, and step are applauded. Picture your inner toddler’s eager anticipation of that first step about to be taken. Cherish and nurture your hopes as you totter with each uncertain, yet optimistic, step, knowing that you might plop over and have to brush off and try again.
If we allow that little word to define us, then we impose limits. Why not allow the no to nudge and urge us toward growth. If we treat ourselves compassionately in growth, we gift ourselves with robust freedom and resilient strength to choose which snapshots we highlight in our life’s album.