A Recipe for Surviving Failure

by Kelly Langenberg

Originally published to AllianceBrass.com


A few weeks ago Jim and I ordered some Chinese takeout. General Tso’s Chicken wasn’t the best choice but the fortune in my cookie was classic: “Good things are coming your way.” Not much of a fortune, I thought. Now, I know that seems unusually positive. I wasn’t always that way. In undergrad I can specifically remember missing one of the notes in the solo that opens the second movement of The Planets and feeling down for days afterward, or the time I threw my music because I couldn’t get my d minor scale accurate enough in the Strauss Horn Concerto, or the many times where my playing in lessons was less than glowing. But after so many years of generating so much internal negativity I knew if I wanted to be successful as a musician, I had to separate the player from the person.

The repeated fails of so many years can turn you into two things: a prisoner of your own pessimism or an iron optimist. I choose the latter. Optimism, coupled with resilience, are necessary skills in our industry that are underappreciated and under-recognized. Optimism is a choice, and it is a reaction that must be learned through repeated disappointments. Musicians fail a lot and we have the great misfortune of doing so on stage before swarms of witnesses. 

Several years ago I was at an orchestra concert to hear Bruckner 5. The first horn player starts the solo and misses the first big leap. The conductor stopped the orchestra and they started over—in concert! Although mortifying for him, it was an amazing and memorable concert, and it was also a fantastic lesson for me that the stage is no place for self-deprecation. Performance is the time to get up there and do what you do and do it the best you can at that time. We can’t allow these tiny slips and fracks to generate our personalities. The hornist playing that solo is a world class musician…and has a touch of iron optimism.

Besides just errors in performance, there are many other situations that can easily turn a musician toward the dark side: the all too frequent “bad playing day," the awkward interaction with the personnel manager, the contractor that didn’t call you for that gig, the physical setbacks (cold sores, pimples, etc.) the orchestra who asks you for a tape for the fourth time, etc. Whatever it is, it cannot be allowed to compile your self-esteem. It is so easy to allow these situations to make you pessimistic about our whole field, but it isn’t the best way to make you successful. I am convinced optimism is a choice because in our industry there are too many reasons to quit, too many reasons to complain, and too many daily personal disappointments. Here are some tips I’ve personally integrated that have proven helpful as a practicing IRON OPTIMIST:

Be positive in your interactions with others at gigs. 

Smile, greet colleagues, and be courteous to the conductor if given an opportunity to speak in rehearsal. If a gig is crappy and disorganized, don’t complain about it. Really, does it ever help to verbally complain that something really bites when you’ve already felt the sharpness of the teeth?


Never look back. 

If you’ve been let go from an organization, you were fired from a gig, you resigned a position, or you just parted amicably, never regret the loss. Move on. Put your positive energy into research and find the next place and organization to invest your energy.


Don’t play the “What if?” game. 

If you sit at home and think, what if I would have taken that gig instead of this one, or what if I would have been called instead of them. This is not productive. Listen to your favorite singer, play your favorite etudes, make better use of your time. Don’t allow your mind to wander into those deep, dark areas.


Disassociate your person from your playing. 

At the end of the day, you are a person with other interests, great personality characteristics and other talents. When you put your instrument in the case at night,  also put your feelings of inadequacy, shame, regret, or disappointment in the case, too.


Limit self-wallowing. 

Let’s say you prepared for an audition for three months, paid hundreds of $$ to travel to the audition all to wash out in the first round. Okay, I’ll give it to you, I’ve been there, and that is disappointing. However, my policy is that I let myself be sad about it for two days and then I get over it. I move on. I find the next audition to prepare for, and I try to appreciate how much better I got on those excerpts over the last three months.


Have a veiled ego. 

It’s OK to think you are the bee’s knees but remember that most of the other players think it, too! It’s best to portray yourself confidently, but in a way that allows your colleagues to feel uplifted as well.


Get a hobby. 

Whether your life’s other mission is to find the perfect craft beer, or whether you like to make scrapbooks, find something else that interests you. Many professionals of other fields find music to be their “hobby.” Musicians need to find something else. Your hobby can be the place to lose yourself for a little while and then you can come back to your horn refreshed and with new creative energy!


Success is defined by you. For some people it is winning an audition, making a set amount of money per year, but for me, my joy is my success and my success is my reward. I don’t always feel happy, but I do find being a horn-playing musician to be rewarding. “Good things are coming my way” because I choose to dwell on the good things and that is why I will always be an iron optimist.

Read the original publication here.

Join the conversation