Dealing With Professional Setbacks
Nick Drozdoff Blog Post #3
Dealing with “Setbacks”
I have written blog-like posts about this subject several times on my FB page, which I was using as a de facto blog for a while one of my friends who very sporadically comments on my stuff thanked me on a break during a gig for a post I had put up on FB. He commented on the idea that one really has no idea who is watching things like this. Just because a particular sharing doesn’t get very many likes or comments doesn’t mean that it didn’t reach someone.
So, as I move my blogging to my official blog page at nickdrozdoff.com I will keep in mind that someone might read this stuff and get some sort of inspiration from it, even if only subliminally. It is in the spirit of helping musicians and anyone in general see things in a way that might help them move forward in their own work.
As some of you may know (this is in my bio here at nickdrozdoff.com), I led a dual career lifestyle for 25 years. I taught high school physics by day and played my music as a full time music pro at night and during weekends. Teaching and learning involve the same structures of thinking regardless of the discipline taught. I want to use this idea to discuss a problem we all face in or life’s work: dealing with setbacks.
As a high school physics teacher, I had some of the most amazing young people come through my classroom – bright, intelligent, hard-working, humorous, funny, light hearted, deep thinkers. It was a day gig one could only dream and wish for. There is a problem one runs into, though, with kids who are like this. They can often be incredibly intense and will over react to something like a test or a quiz that didn’t go well. It wasn’t that rare for a bright young man or woman come to me after doing badly on a test (sometimes that mean getting a B+ instead of their usual A, but that is a different issue) and be on the verge of dissolving into tears with a “we are not worthy” sense of being defeated. Then my job as their teacher was to talk them off the ledge of self-deprecation and get them to realize what this actually was. This is what is often referred to in the world of teaching as a “teachable moment” or “learning moment.” All they had to do was embrace that moment with joy, and they would be on the way to progress.
I want to elaborate on this with a story. For a while I was on the faculty at the College of Lake County in northern Illinois. I taught trumpet, trombone, French horn and jazz studies. During this period, I was still struggling with the continued development as a full time musician (this was before I started teaching physics by day). Among my students was a gentleman who had children who were just a little younger than I was. He was something of a comeback player. He was a very interesting person and often our lessons would include some interesting small talk.
During one of these lessons, I was bugged by having been abused by a band leader over the weekend and then some issues with a client on a gig of my own. I was angry and frustrated. None of the nonsense I was dealing with had anything to do with playing trumpet and this was driving me nuts. So, I was whining and complaining about all of this is a brief vent session before the lesson. This gentleman patiently listened and his response has stuck with me ever since. “Whenever I run into problems that seem so overwhelming that you don’t seem to be able to see how to begin solving them, I make it a point to take the position that I am going to LOVE MY WAY OUT OF THEM,” was what he told me.
That was it. Then it was on to the trumpet lesson. However, that idea just stuck in my head. This didn’t mean I was to love the problems or the mistreatment by clients and certain band leaders. I was to love the opportunity to learn from these things. I was to love the chance to solve the problems. The idea of love driving the solution offered the freedom of thought that allowed the solutions to develop. Replacing anger and fear with love prevents you from freezing up in your thinking. It allows ideas to flow in a smooth and peaceful way. Most importantly, this sense of love gives you very palpable sense that you WILL find a solution even before you have. Love comes coupled with hope.
Now, back to my occasionally overwrought physics students. I did what every caring teacher would do. I made sure they knew what I already knew about them: that one test or quiz didn’t define them, but rather, their whole body of work. Then I shared this story with them. Sometimes I would share the story with the whole class. Often when we are faced with a setback we can feel so defeated that we not don’t have any idea of how to deal with it we can feel like just quitting and walking away from it all. To do that, however, would be to accept the very defeat that we would heal. This is where training oneself to “love your way through the problem” comes in. Virtually all of my students, once they got past the fear of the setback and got into the joy of working the problem, were very successful and realized how good they already were.
Now, I am certain that anyone reading this can see the parallels in learning to excel in any activity, so it is not difficult to apply this to, say, learning how to play trumpet better or developing more business for a budding career in music. Let me offer some ideas about making the connection.
I have had many trumpet teachers and jazz teachers over the years. Every one of them has helped me grow. Some were benevolent father figures. Others verged on tyrant status. All, however, were dedicated to forcing me to better myself. Here is an expression that has popped out in all of this. “You are only as good as your last gig.”
Now, what the heck does that mean? I picked that up from more than one source. Here is what they were driving at. If you played a gig and it went BADLY, that was going to be a problem you were going to have to deal with, so make sure you don’t have a bad gig.
OK, in the often vicious world of free-lance music pros, there might be something to this. However, as a professional teacher, I would argue that making this the lynch pin of your learning is a mistake. This thinking would cause you to live in constant fear of missing a note, stepping on some toes or just having a so-called “bad day.” I would argue for a different position in one’s continued development.
I would argue that you are never defined by one moment. I would argue that no unexpected negative issue is insurmountable. I would argue that no problem comes without a solution. Then make it your job to work on that solution in a loving way with a sense of joy that you are, indeed, developing the solution.
I struggled with near paralyzing stage fright as a younger musician, particularly if I was playing classical music. The judgmental attitude of audiences can be brutal. I would find my hands actually shaking at times. It sometimes felt like I was being led to my own execution to walk on stage in front of an orchestra or concert band. I couldn’t wait for it to be over. This was absolutely galling to me, because I loved what I was doing so much and the idea that this fear of missing notes was just going to CAUSE me to miss those notes was even more frustrating because I couldn’t seem to stop it. Now throw in the thinking along the lines of “You’re only as good as your last gig,” and I was doomed before I put the horn to my lips.
I had to heal this, and I wasn’t going to be defeated by fear (by the way, fear and anger are connected). The “love your way through it" became the underpinning of my work on this. I was determined to love my audience, no matter how they acted. I was there to share something beautiful with them. I was there to love my playing, not dread it. I was there to love working with my fellow musicians. We were all in the same boat. I took on an attitude of “not caring if I missed a note.” Now, I don’t mean that I was going to deliberately be sloppy in my work. On the contrary, I practiced diligently to prepare. Rather I was taking the position that, if I did miss a note, I was just going to move on. It was a split second moment of time where my concentration drifted and then pull myself back into line. Finally, I was going to just have fun with my work.
The sense of stage fright quickly drifted from my experience. Has my classical playing improved? Certainly. Do I ever miss notes? Yup. However, I will NEVER beat myself up over them. I simply make a note of what happened and make it my job to fix it.
These days I play much more jazz than classical music. Why that is will be the subject of another blog post. In any case, to paraphrase and episode from the Ken Burns series on jazz, there is risk in playing jazz. When one stands up to create a solo, to decorate some moments in time with a series of sound and rhythms that have never been put together before and probably never to play them exactly the same way again, seems to bring risk with it. Did the solo work? If yes, great. Was the solo a mess by the standards set at the moment? Then let it go! Regardless of what the audience thinks at the moment, you can’t define or limit yourself by the idea that your solo “didn’t work.” In order to create meaningful improvised solos, you have to be willing to take chances – go out on a limb and try things that pop into your head that you might not have thought of trying.
Let me share something about a Chicago trumpeter of some repute. While we were acquainted, we weren’t friends. I would run into him at jam sessions and often hear him play in clubs. He was known as a sort of wild man! Some thought he was a little crazy. He was, however, by local standards, a very successful jazz artist. One time I was discussing his playing with a mutual friend, a jazz pianist and teacher. He said something that was interesting to me and has also stuck with me over the years. “I love _ _ _ _ _ _’_ playing! You never know what the heck is going to happen when he stands up to blow. Sometimes is just a load of garbage coming out of his horn. But, when he nails one of his iconoclastic spot on solos, it makes the wait worth it! The fact you don’t know what is going to happen makes it even more fun to listen to this guy.” This musician was willing to put himself out there and just go for it. When it all worked, he produced some genuinely brilliant music. He was unafraid of the risk and, in his own unconventional way, was loving his way through his music.
So, let me try to bring this all together.
Never be afraid of any sort of “set-back.” Certainly, the cliché concept that a setback is actually an opportunity to progress in disguise, but it, cliché though it may be, it is important. I have experienced my setbacks, blunders, goof-ups and just general mayhem in my ever evolving professional life. I no longer, resent them, though. I no longer fear them. I simply address each situation like this in a very carefully thought out way about what I can do with my practice or business efforts to fix them, and then I fix them. The one thing added? I make sure that I love doing the fix and that I have fun doing the fix.
I hope this more elaborate discussion of things I’ve posted on FB can serve to help someone. Even if it is only ONE reader finds this helpful, then I’ve done something good here.
Remember, "Always love your way out of it."
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