Practice makes perfect. And heaven knows, you need to be perfect. How else will you become the best in the world, and therefore earn the work and opportunities you desire? So you lock yourself in the practice room and “shed” 12 hours per day. Problem is, no matter how hard you try, there’s always someone better. Actually many, many people.
Come on, did you really think you had a shot of becoming the best composer, violinist, guitarist, recording engineer, or _________ out there? For most of us, the answer is obvious: NO! The bar is simply too high, and there aren’t enough hours in a day (or lifetime) to catch up.
Can you have a successful artistic life even if you’re not the best? Absolutely! But that’s fodder for another post. My message today: become the best in the world! (Huh? But you just said…)
The problem is that too many of us are trying to become the best doing exactly the same thing as everyone else. Our categories are too broad, and creativity too narrow.
Instead of asking “which steps must I take to outshine the competition?” try another approach: “With my unique personality, interests, talents, training, background, and skills, what could I potentially do better than anyone on the planet?” This is a very different kind of question, eliciting a very different response.
I knew a decent pianist. He wasn’t winning competitions or anything (the nice way to say he was losing them), but he was respectable. He also liked to sing. No Pavarotti, mind you, but he had a fine operatic tenor voice and could even hit some “money” notes. So he lived a dual life: some days a pianist, other times a singer. People who heard him in each setting had no inkling about his supplementary talent. They just thought he was pretty good. Not the best in the world, though.
I encouraged him to find or create opportunities to combine both together. Could you imagine being at a pretty good classical piano recital where the soloist unexpectedly broke out into song? It would be memorable, newsworthy, and remarkable. That was his ticket to becoming the best.
Another approach entails developing broad expertise on a particular topic. Perhaps you love playing French music. Of course, many others do that as well. But you become the world’s leading expert in “all things related.” You study the culture, master the language, learn the trivia. Maybe you spend a few months or years travelling France, and visit every concert hall in the country. In addition to performance gigs, you teach French history seminars (always incorporating music, of course) and write a cookbook on the favorite cuisine of French composers. Pretty soon, even films are consulting you about authentic performance practice. After all, you’re the leading authority!
Consider some of the many potential ways you can become the best:
1) Combine skills within one art form (i.e. harpist-bass trombonist (I know one!))
2) Combine skills from various art forms (i.e. trumpeter who dances while playing)
3) Combine artistic and non-artistic aptitudes (i.e. drummer with excellent marketing prowess)
4) Combine artistic skills with hobbies (i.e. clarinetist-swimmer doing pool-side concerts)
5) Find a niche/specialize (i.e. sacred music composer for amateur musicians)
6) Become an expert (i.e. Balinese music, dance, culture, and all things related)
7) Take a unique approach (i.e. performing on newly invented instruments)
8) Form unique collaborations (i.e. violist who pairs with mimes, magicians, chefs, etc.)
9) Champion a cause (i.e. world’s leading tuba advocate for cancer research)
10) Invent an approach (i.e. your own teaching method)
Everyone has the potential to become the best in the world at something! Determining your area may require soul searching, but I guarantee this is possible for you. Please note, “world” doesn’t necessarily mean the entire globe. Your world might translate to a particular region or community.
So for today, and maybe the next month, why don’t you cut your practicing short by an hour? During that time, figure out what it will really take to become the best.
David Cutler is a pianist, composer, and author of the book The Savvy Musician: Building a Career, Earning a Living, & Making a Difference.