Tear Down the Pedestal
Hero: an individual of distinguished courage or ability, admired for his/her brave deeds and noble qualities…a being of godlike prowess and beneficence who often came to be honored as a divinity.
We all have musical heroes—those people who, through performances or teaching or recordings or word of mouth, come to embody the musician we want to be. We wish we could have their sound, their style, their phrasing, their virtuosity. They show us what is possible on our instruments; they establish the careers we want to have, the schools we want to attend, and the musicians with whom we want to associate.
This is all well and good; indeed, in the Internet age, the amount that can be learned from our increasingly rich and accessible community is quickly becoming indispensable. However, this admiration can become destructive when we start to think our heroes are infallible.
The moment we begin to believe in absolutes—that there are some people who never make a mistake, who have always been as accomplished as they are now—we are inevitably led to the conclusion that we will never be as good as they are. After all, we make mistakes, don’t we? Sometimes we have bad nights; we lose auditions; we don’t have it all figured out. By that logic, then, we'll never make it to our heroes’ exalted level.
This thought, the embodiment of defeatism, is perhaps the greatest mental barrier we can put in front of ourselves. After all, if we have no chance of success, why should we try? Why would we devote our lives to an art form that is often so frustrating, so unpredictable, without at least a glimmer of hope that we can be among the best? The pedestal on which we place our heroes can turn into a nearly-insurmountable source of discouragement.
I’m a big proponent of tearing down that pedestal. These heroes—these human beings—are worthy of every ounce of respect that is given to them. Anyone who spends a lifetime in pursuit of an ideal is worthy of respect. But we have to understand them as human beings who have achieved an incredible amount through talent, luck, and, most of all, hard work. They are not musical demigods who emerged from the womb perfect, fully-formed artists.
A brief illustration of this: Everyone agrees, the most prominent positions in the musical world are very stressful. Now, when musicians stress about their jobs, that means that they’re aware of their ability to play badly. Even if we can’t imagine it, they know—inevitably through experience in the practice room and in prior performances—that something can go wrong. Their job then becomes one of preparation, not one of coasting on the greatness that they’ve long since achieved.
Ultimately, understanding our idols in this light both makes them more accessible and more worthy of respect. After all, if someone could attain greatness without hard work, would that really be worthy of admiration? Envy, perhaps, but I tend to admire those who worked for their success, as all musicians have to.
Regard your musical heroes as what they are: People who have added to their innate talent by working tremendously hard, and by enduring far more disappointments than triumphs. We must learn everything we can from what our heroes do well, and when we fall short, we have to remember, they did, too, probably more times than they care to admit. But they never stopped working toward their ideals, and that’s what makes them heroic.