As musicians, we all love the words “good” and “great”. Coming from a teacher or friend about a piece we've performed, or even a casually reassuring “you’re doing good!”, it can make us feel like we’re actually GETTING somewhere in this crazy world of competition, expectation and pressure.
However, these words are not always that good or great. I realised this when I was reading comments I received from a performance. I had messed up a section, and in bold underline, a teacher had simply written “not great”. I was honestly a little pissed off after reading this; After working on this section painstakingly for two months, and although it didn’t turn out the way I wanted it to, I hated to think that the only thing the teacher took from it was “not great”.
While example is clearly damaging, sometimes the damage these words may have isn’t as apparent. I realised this when a friend asked me if I had met a particular musician who was studying with us. After saying no, I asked facetiously “are they good?”. The person responded with a laugh, but earnestly said “yes”. After reflecting, I realised my question had been completely unfair; not only had I tried to make a judgment without meeting the person, but I had based that judgment on how well they played their instrument!
These two examples made me realise that “good” and “great", used both in a positive and negative sense, are some of the most common words utilised by musicians. From the beginning of our musical lives, we’ve been told our playing was “good” and sometimes “not good”. We’ve all been told, at some point, that we have “great” potential to pursue music in whatever form. However, I don’t think we’ve explored the true meanings of these words, and the detriment to our profession when we use these words too often.
When we use the words good and great, we often talk about others (“They weren’t that good” and “They’re really good!”), or we may use these words to describe the art we produce (“It was really good!” and “It wasn’t that good”). The issue is that by defining things as either “good” or “not good”, we are inherently limiting ourselves for multiple reasons.
1. People are too complex to be just “good”!
Even though I beat myself up when I asked my friend whether the other player was “good”, I realised that I wasn’t the only one who was doing this. Most people I’ve met have used these words to judge the ability of others. Not only do I think it’s unfair to judge another persons skill based on the opinion of others, but the use of these confining words creates an unsaid hierarchy, where everybody “knows” who the “great” and “not great” players are. Often these judgements are based on whether a musician is accepted into a particular school/orchestra/music camp. This is problematic; just because a player wasn’t accepted into a camp, or another may have lots of things to improve on, it doesn’t mean they’re “not great”. The musicians you may consider “not great” players may have more going on than you think, whether they need more time to figure things out, or they have their own personal issues they’re simultaneously trying to reconcile. And sometimes, the “not great” players in university sometimes end up being more successful than the “good” players!
2. What does “good” mean?
If somebody were to ask you what makes a great musician, you’d probably throw words around like passion, expression, technique, dedication etc. But all these things look different in different people. Compare two great musicians, and their manner of playing will most likely be completely different, and their journey to “greatness” will be different too. Yet they’re both considered great. People prioritise different things. For example, one teacher may say the notes don’t matter, while another teacher says it’s all about the notes. And because of this, we hear conflicting things about how to be great, and we inevitably give conflicting advice to others, even though everybody has a different idea on what “good” actually means. My “good” may be someones “not good”, but at the same time could be someones “great”. When you look at it like this, these words don’t really mean anything at all!
3. We are self-critical as it is!
Being the self-critical and perfection-striving people we are, we spend our days analysing every minute detail of our playing and are constantly trying to improve. When we’re trying to be good all the time, it can suck when someone tells us that something we’ve created wasn’t that great. Yet we all know that subpar performances are inevitable, because humans are fallible. Most of the time we’re already beating ourselves up when we stuff up, and sometimes being reminded that a performance “wasn’t our best” is the last thing we need to hear.
4. We expressed it, so it’s good!
Music is one of the coolest expressions ever; it’s basically a test in bringing together human physicality, intellect and emotion. It’s really great that human’s can express stuff, and as musicians, we’re so lucky to have the opportunity to do it as much as we do. But I think people are too preoccupied with the notion that expression has to be of a certain, often unattainable, standard. In an ideal world, we would create music with plenty of preparation and ease; however, life is complicated and unpredictable, so sometimes we can’t control the conditions when preparing for a performance, so it’s unrealistic to expect absolute greatness every time we play. If it’s any reassurance, humans aren’t likely to willingly embarrass themselves. Even if one believes the piece they’re about to play isn’t “good”, they probably wouldn’t put themselves out on the line, in front of an audience, if it wasn’t “good enough”. Of course expression can be refined and improved; that’s why we practice! But if we assume the baseline musical expression is “good”, because it exists in the first place, we can definitely go further in how we discuss music and improve the art we create.
So ultimately, the next time we think about judging the music we and others create, I believe we should come up with words better than “good” and “not good”, words that give what we create legitimacy, even if the art created is not to our taste. I think that will foster a more positive working environment, especially in the Conservatorium world. Everyone is on their own individual journey, playing music for whatever reason fulfils them, and it’s important to allow others to feel as though they’re allowed to continue along the journey without feeling as though they’re “not good enough”. If somebody isn’t playing “great”, it could go deeper than you may think, and shouldn’t be generalised down to a few, meaningless words.
Furthermore, the use of the words “good” and “great” is a reflection of our growing tendency to quantify our successes and experiences. These days we tend to quantify music by audience members, views, marks, ratings, and how many people liked it, awards, prizes, how many hours we practice, how many years we’ve played. Why can’t it be qualified as simply an experience? I think then music as we know it will be freer and more special than ever before. Maybe we’ll discover something bigger than what we know?
And on an even broader scale, we are so lucky to be able to perform, especially as we live in a world where we’re constantly bombarded by negativity and seriousness. Music is an antidote to all of that; it’s something that promotes peace, happiness and togetherness. So lets not bring this negativity into what we do by giving each other a break, like we give our audiences a break when we perform for them.
So after considering all of this, I try not to use the words “good” and “great” to qualify my musical experiences. I try to break it down into what I liked about it, and what I can improve on. I try to always think of myself as good, even if something I created was deemed by others to be “not great”, because I’m always learning and striving to be better. Finally, I never ask others whether another musician is good or not, because I eventually did meet that musician whom my friend asked me about, and they ended up being an awesome person and a dedicated musician. And I didn’t even need to know whether they were “good”!