Setbacks – and solutions

The musician’s life is a journey and sometimes there are setbacks along the way which challenge us and lead us to question what we are doing. Setbacks should not be regarded as negative obstacles, but rather an opportunity to pause, reflect, evaluate and then move on.

This week I had a setback in my musical life which initially caused me to question what I do – from my teaching to my own playing and performing. Fortunately, I have supportive family and close friends who were willing to listen to me while I allowed the news to sink in, who did not try to tell me to “snap out of it”, but who listened and talked to me with understanding, care and intelligence. In the great scheme of things, what happened was very minor, but it was important to me personally. But I am not given to wallowing in self-pity or endlessly asking “what if?”, and quite soon, with the support of a valued mentor, another close colleague, and friends, I was able to reflect on what had happened and begin to draw positives from it to enable me to move on and formulate a new plan.

We all have setbacks in our musical lives – a performance about which we are less than happy, a not so flattering review, an injury or a failed exam. These things can be tough, but any setback or failure can be turned into a positive resource from which we can learn and move on. Sometimes reflecting on what happened and why can be painful – holding a mirror up to one’s own weaknesses is never easy – but if one does so with an open, positive mind, trial and error, exploration and experimentation offer us useful feedback and enable us to adjust our approach, if necessary, before trying again and progressing. And remember that in the eyes of friends and trusted colleagues, we have not really changed because of the setback: we are still the same person these people around us likes and respects. So when a setback trips us up, it is worth recalling positive endorsements and feedback we have received from teachers, colleagues, friends, and others in the profession.

A more practical method to examine why something happened is the Root Cause Analysis (RCA). It is often used in medicine, and it helps answer the question of why the problem or setback occurred in the first place. RCA assumes that systems and events are interrelated and the process seeks to identify the origin of a problem using a specific set of steps, to find the primary cause of the problem, in order to:

  1. Determine what happened.
  2. Determine why it happened.
  3. Work out what to do to reduce the likelihood that it will happen again.

In music, we might use RCA to determine why the performance we had worked so hard for did not live up to our expectations. Factors leading to this might include: lack of proper preparation, insufficient warm up, feeling under the weather. Writing these things in a chart (usually under 5 headings) allows us to de-personalise them and examine everything in an objective way. A RCA exercise may not give us all the answers we are looking for, but it can go a long way in helping us identify and process what happened and to dig deeper beyond merely superficial factors. In this way, we can draw positives from the experience and, hopefully, find solutions or adjustments to enable us to progress.

So I did a RCA to examine my setback this week, and formulated a plan to enable me to move forward, but by far the best tonic has to be the support of trusted colleagues and friends, including the person who brought me this beautiful bunch of roses which are now filling my piano room with their special scent and sunshine.


Further reading

The Musician’s Journey with Christine Croshaw

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