Josh FitzgeraldThis article written by Josh Fitzgerald, Area 9 Secretary

I recently attended a week-long course related to my small (non-music) business. The course was designed to teach all areas of a single content; but of course, in reality, the lessons required further discussion on how this one business area related to many other areas of business which was further enforced by the diversity of attendees in the class. Some were young and just were focusing on becoming proficient in a single niche of the industry to get their foot in the door, and others were multi-business owners with many years of accolades, experience, and professional designations under their belt who were hoping to use this knowledge to expand million dollar companies.

This experience caused me to ponder how we similarly approach our music endeavors. For some of our ensembles, members come just to fellowship or have a group social activity to which they can belong. Others come for a mental challenge and truly want to become proficient at the instrument. Others come because they feel it is an important extension of their faith or desire to serve others. Some are great players, and yet some are much less proficient and need a lot of individual attention and coaching. There are ringers who have participated for forty years and others who are experiencing their first rehearsal. It is important that the rehearsal environment we create as directors and fellow ringers be inclusive to all the various desires and abilities present in our groups; sometimes we forget that not everyone is there for the same reason or holds the same personal goals that we do. As you probably know, creating a group vision or mission statement can help your group achieve results and benefits which focusing on the individual desires cannot.

Josh Fitzgerald Blog PostHowever, being a curious person, I decided to do a little more research and reading. According to Dr. Kageyama, who writes The Bulletproof Musician Blog (an excellent resource you should check out!), researchers did a study to evaluate how participants perceived their abilities relative to other participants in both competitive and cooperative situations. The participants were given incentives to choose whether they would like to compete against another individual, or whether they would prefer to cooperate with them instead. I encourage you to read the full blog post for all the details [full article here], but as it turns out, the perception we have of our ability is tied to the experience we have of others’ performance. If we are partnered with a strong performer, we are much more likely to believe our performance will be strong, and we believe it will be weaker if paired with a weaker performer. If we compete against a weak competitor, we perceive we will do well; and if paired against a stronger performer, we perceive we will do more poorly. These perceptions are further reinforced once the performance validates the perception, even if other data or experiences show the perception to be invalid or unfairly skewed.

So, what do we do with this information? It is possible that it tells us that giving praise to others in our ensembles (whether true/deserved or not!) can cause the others around that person to perceive their ability improved just by ringing next to someone who is known to be a strong performer. Moreover, everyone feeling that their ability is strong should lead to strong(er) performance of the whole group. However, conversely (or maybe additionally), it teaches us that we should not be using others’ performance as an actual measuring tool for our ability. Gaining inspiration from others is great, but we should use our own goals as the benchmarks of success. When it comes to our handbell life, these goals can include progress or achievement in technical ability, dynamic/control ability in a passage of music, levels of service to the group or organization, ability to recruit and connect with new ringers, commitments, overcoming performance anxiety, and so would more. Each of us should have individual feats for which we strive, rather than falling into the trap of comparison to others.

This is a challenge because it is much easier for us to be a cheerleader for others than for ourselves. Most feel uncomfortable when accepting praise or accolades, due in part, because we compare ourselves and feel inadequate when we do not perceive ourselves as proficient or worthy as someone else. We forget that we tend to overestimate others’ abilities, and dramatically underestimate our own. Sitting in my business course, I could easily have compared myself negatively to the high-earning business owners, but I would have lost my ability to learn from them and the chance to reach my own goals. So, I reminded myself – and all of you – that comparison is the thief of joy.

So, you are attending an Area 9 or Handbell Musicians of America event in the next year, aren’t you? When you are there at that event working through some challenging music or are listening to an excellent community ensemble perform – one you would love to be in, or watching in awe of a world-renown conductor masterfully conduct a piece you love, remember this article. Remember you are setting and achieving your own benchmarks during the event as an extension of your music goals. Remember that you’re accomplishing things that are meant only for you. Respect the reasons why others are there, which may differ from your own, and learn something from that diversity and experience. Use that inspiration to seek out a new way to create or to evolve. And ultimately remember that all the small steps you’re taking now are preparing you for something bigger and better in the future; whether in music or a real life; something that you would not be ready for if not for the current experience, and all the other smaller experiences you’ve had along the way.