I can clearly remember going to watch the Eastman Philharmonia playing Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 during my time at Eastman. If you’re unfamiliar with the piece, the most notable feature is the incorporation of a minor version of Frère Jacques into the third movement. Basically, the whole orchestra takes a turn at playing the simple round.
As an aside, most Mahler symphonies can be identified using bizarre comical descriptions of the instrumentation. For instance, I love the one with the big trombone solo, the boys choir, and the alto soloist. Or the one where there are usually more performers than audience members. Check it out, he liked to put something odd in every one.
Now, there’s a tuba solo in Mahler 1 when it comes time for it to play the Frère Jacques theme, but this story isn’t about that. I think when it came time for the oboe to play it, I had a moment of crushing despair. The oboist, (I think my friend Sara), absolutely nailed it. It was gorgeous and evocative, fluid, and seemingly effortless. What killed me is that it was not a technical and labor-intensive solo, but rather just Frère Jacques. The children’s song! And I couldn’t conceive of myself playing that simple song half as well as she did. I spent the rest of the concert with my face buried in my hands feeling complete contempt for what I had to offer as a musician.
While I am significantly less prone to angst these days than when I was twenty, I still encounter this jealous angst from time to time. I’ve been lucky to fill in with the West Philadelphia Orchestra when they’re regular sousaphonist, Jimmy, is unavailable. From the moment I heard Jimmy, I’ve been blown away by his tone, fluidity, and intuition on the horn. Things that I can do passingly well in deep concentration seem to come unconsciously to him. At a rehearsal earlier this week, he told me about his new website he just launched. After hearing a few sample tracks, I had the same despair of striving to achieve a sound like that and falling short.
(Let me also take a minute to say that Jimmy, in addition to being a monster tuba player, is one of the nicest guys I’ve met. He’s consistently modest and has been extremely supportive of my work with the band.)
It’s not as if these feelings are serving me in any way. I’m always on the lookout for transcendent experiences in music. Taking a cue from another recent post, hearing something inspiring played exceptionally can only increase my knowledge and make me a better musician. This makes it especially dismaying when I find myself jealous of performer. I’m not only torturing myself, but I’m also failing to get anything positive out of the experience.
Also, I really don’t like the idea of jealousy being a catalyst to greater achievement; the candle under my ass that pushes me to be better than anyone else. Mostly because being better than other people isn’t a high priority of mine. For all this talk of jealousy, I’m a quite non-competitive person. In addition, I don’t think the kind of motivation you get from jealousy is sustainable both in terms of motivation or mental health.
I take it better these days. I’ve never been one to act contemptuously towards someone who is better than I just because they are. I’ve always fallen into the “curl into a ball and feel sorry for myself” camp, but even those episodes are more sporadic. Interestingly, one of the things that helps me get over it is a concept I pull from the game Magic the Gathering.
Magic is a constantly evolving card game, built on a foundation of fantasy, collection, and strategy. Since the makers keep adding cards to the set, there often comes a time when a card is obviously better than a previous one. From there comes the term “strictly better.” A card can said to be strictly better than another if the type of card is identical, cost to play the card is identical, and the effect of the card is of greater quality. For example, imagine I have a card that costs one resource to use, and it draws you 2 new cards when you use it. Later on, they print a card that costs one of that resource once again, but this time draws you 3 cards. The latter card is an example of a strictly better card.
As a second example, let’s say that newly printed card once again costs one resource, but this time it lets you draw 3 cards, but then you have to discard a card. This cannot be said to be strictly better. There are times where sometimes discarding that one card is a benefit and sometimes it is a drawback. Since there is a variable quality about it, it is not strictly better, but rather just different.
Where this applies to jealousy, is that when people are involved, there really isn’t such a thing as “strictly better.” There are so many factors that make us who we are, that it’s impossible for enough to line up to make enough constants to determine a case of “strictly better.” Someone may have a better sound quality than I do, but they might be playing a different instrument, in a different genre, with a different purpose. Even when those things coincide, we play stylistically different with different intentions and inflections. And that’s not a bad thing; that’s what makes music worth listening to.
So after I listened to Jimmy’s music on his website, I made a conscious turn-around. I shared it with as many people as I could to show them how awesome he sounded. I plan to pick through his performances and find inspiration for my own playing. And most importantly, I celebrated the diversity and possibilities of musical communication. I’m slowly unlearning the despair of jealousy and replacing it with the joy of possibility and choice. Maybe one day, I’ll be able to appreciate the way I perform and interpret music, be it a blistering jazz solo, or just Frère Jacques.