Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

Beautiful Victory

Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

Beautiful Victory

Article excerpt

ROMANTICS STILL DREAM THAT musicians and other artists toil nobly in a golden realm, oblivious to the worldly fray. Human nature, though, has a way of asserting itself: Like everybody else, musicians discern and discriminate, compare and compete. Musical competitiveness--and competition--starts the moment a young player is able to tell the difference between the kinds of sounds he or she is making and the sounds someone else is making. Soon enough, players find themselves grouped by ability: The better players sit closer to the front in the school orchestra or band, and the best players are assigned the solos.

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Sifting and sorting continues inevitably in one form or another at every age and every level of accomplishment, from grade school to graduate school to professional life. Is it a good thing? Should the best players always get to play the solos? Sure. The solos sound better that way. The music is more beautiful, which is to everyone's advantage. The stronger players set standards, show what's possible, and inspire the weaker ones to work harder and to improve--or to shift their focus to areas in which they'll be more successful. And the stronger players have an incentive to stay on their toes.

In music, as indeed in all fields, and among composers and instrument makers as well as performers, competition has been a crucial factor in most great accomplishments and all great progress. Each generation of artists, like each generation of scientists or athletes, attempts to match and if possible surpass the preceding generation. Such striving is a hardwired human phenomenon, and how delightful for all of us when the attempts succeed.

But of course it's no fun to try and fail, or even to feel that you may not be keeping up. Here we come to the less rosy, occasionally destructive byproducts of competition: disillusion and discouragement. I don't think there's a music student (or professional musician) in the world who hasn't at some point sunk into the misery of these afflictions, either partway or profoundly. There's always at least one person who can do at least one thing better than you, and somewhere along the way most of us find ourselves confronting more daunting numbers in both respects. Yes, ability blossoms into accomplishment at different rates for different individuals, and in our most lucid moments, we remember that--or have the good fortune to be reminded of it. With courage, luck, hard work, and moral support from whoever is able to offer it, we frail mortal musicians may find a path that suits and satisfies us. But there are no guarantees.

The fact remains that some people are simply more gifted than others, endowed with talents that are readily apparent. And the words "readily apparent" point directly to one of the reasons competition in music may seem more intense and more jarring than competition in other fields: Music is made out loud. It's a performance art, a public art; differences are obvious, and there's no way to avoid comparisons. Many scientific disciplines, for example, are as intensely competitive as music, but for the most part the work is done in private, and the answer to the question "Who's better?" may not be obvious for years. Music affords no such luxury and--with today's remarkably high performance standards--no respite.

Then again, competition in many fields is even more overt, with much more dramatic consequences than in music. Think of athletics, or politics. Yet in these areas competition seems normal to us, not at all questionable or philosophically disturbing. …

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