Compared to What?

“Compared to what?”

“It’s not good enough,” I say when my practicing isn’t going well. “It’s not ready yet,” says a student when the recital date is getting close.

What I find interesting about these statements is that they feel like statements of fact, but they are not. They are judgment statements. And although we may feel certain about their truth, our perceptions may need some adjustment.

Those statements are really comparisons, and we need to evaluate the validity of those comparisons before we pass final judgment. To be certain we aren’t comparing apples to oranges, we need to ask a crucial question: “Compared to what?”

It’s not good enough compared to:

The idea and sound I have in my head.
The way I hear someone else play it.
How my teacher wants me to play it.

It’s not ready compared to:

How I wish it were.
How it might have been if I had more time.
The goal I set.

Some of those comparisons are valid and useful, some are not. Yes, we need to assess our progress if we want to improve, if we want to strive to be our very best. But when the judgment gets in the way of our pride in our accomplishment, it is damaging. Those are the comparisons that we shouldn’t be making.

How can you tell the difference? The comparison is only useful if it is actionable, if you can do something about it. There’s no point in wishing you could play a piece like a famous concert artist if you are only just starting lessons. But if you have a reasonable goal set for yourself rather than an unattainable ideal, then by all means use that goal to prod you to greater achievement.

I have often worked with students who struggle with this, looking for results that are unreasonable given their situation. Perhaps some aspect of the piece is still too challenging, or they have been ill and unable to practice. Possibly they are just frustrated by slow progress. I try to help them clarify the comparison, so that they can see if their judgment is accurate and realistic.

Often, simply examining the comparison is enough to take the pressure off, and allow them to enjoy their playing and practice.

In the words of the great jazz pianist Les McCann, “Tryin’ to make it real. Compared to what?”


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