Ego vs. Confidence

by Weston Sprott

Originally published to www.WestonSprott.com



Question:

Hi Weston,
I'm curious how you deal with balancing confidence and ego. I'm still young in my studies, so I am still finding my boundaries. Recently in my efforts to not be "that guy" in a section/studio, I found my fear of letting ego get in the way effectively disabled my sense of confidence. Kind of ironic, no? Of course, I'm now starting to see the importance of balancing the two, but I'm very curious to see what you have to say about it and if you have any experience with musicians on either end of the spectrum. Thanks! 


Answer:

This is a truly excellent question. I've dealt with this issue a lot, both as a student and as a professional. I'm sure this issue could be psychologically unpacked from several varying angles because it is so complex. I'll tell you how the ego/confidence balance has affected me at different points in my musical life, and hopefully you can draw something beneficial from that. 

I attended a very large public high school in Spring, TX. We had a really big, incredibly competitive band program with many high level trombone players. As a result of this, I didn't make into the top band at my own high school until my junior year of high school, and even then I wasn't first chair! It wasn't until my senior year of high school that I was even recognized as the top player at my own high school, and even that distinction was a toss up at times (Tim Higgins, Principal Trombone of SF Symphony was also in my section, as well as another student named Stefan, who may have very well been more talented than both of us put together!). Texas high school band is filled with constant competiitons. We had at least 6 chair tests a year at our school, plus marching and concert band contests, region band, region orchestra, all-area, all-state, solo & ensemble contest, etc. At any rate, I recall my high school music experience being more about competition than anything else. Sure, we had fun playing the music because we had a killer trombone section and we all loved music, but I remember a lot of it being about proving who was the best.

This type of hyper-competitive environment brings out certain qualities in a person, especially amongst those who thrive in such an environment. When I got to Indiana University, I had the good fortune of winning the audition to be principal trombone in the university's top orchestra as a freshman. Accompanying the positive feelings of getting to play in the best group and gaining the sense that perhaps there was a chance for me to be successful in our incredibly competitive industry, was the dubious label of the cocky, arrogant, freshman kid. To the credit of my accusers, they were partially right! I can't give them the satisfaction of saying their labeling of me at the time was spot on accurate. :) It's easy gain an inflated sense of self around your peers when you are young, talented, and know next to nothing.

I think the greatest downfall of arrogance/egotism is that you fail to learn from those who are less accomplished than you. The more experience I have, the more I realize that there is something to be learned from just about everyone, regardless of their level of accomplishment. I've learned some of the most useful and fascinating things from the people you would least expect to learn from. During my first years of college, I reserved my greatest humility for my teachers and others who were clearly higher up on the totem pole. I now realize that level of humility, interest, and desire to learn should be presented to everyone. This way you open your mind to learning and befriending everyone, not just the musical "upper class." Having a big ego doesn't serve the best interest of anyone. It only makes the eventual fall from your high horse longer and more painful, and it WILL happen sooner or later! We are susceptible to what my best friend likes to call "heavyweight champion syndrome." You win a big fight/audition (or play a great concert/recital) and you feel on top of the world because everyone is applauding your most recent success. While you waste time basking in your own glory and reading your own press, you forget that someone else is training hard to knock you out! As a musician, your greatest opponent is often times yourself. We are all only one rehearsal or performance away from being knocked to the canvas and learning humility the hard way. 

On the other side of the coin, I'm a big fan of having a lot of confidence. I think many people have difficulty distinguishing between confidence and egotism, but there is a clear difference in my opinion. Egotism lends itself to believing that you are simply better than someone else and making sure everyone else is aware of this as well. By definition, it is "an inflated sense of self-importance or superiority." Confidence, on the other hand, is defined as "full trust; belief in the powers, trustworthiness, or reliability of a person or thing." There's the difference. I think it is impossible to be a consistently successful musician without confidence. Most people aren't able to maintain confidence at critical moments, and often times, they regard those who can as egotistical. Confidence in your product will come from much deep thinking and consideration of your musical choices, coupled with hours of practice and repetitions of the repertoire. If you have put in this ground work, you shouldn't feel guilty about playing with confidence. Every musician is entitled to his/her interpretation, so long as it is well thought out and practiced. This is why I always tell people to not play for approval. Have enough confidence to play what you believe in! 

As an auditioner, it's important to have confidence in your product. I think a turning point in my mentality towards auditions happened during an audition for the Seattle Symphony. I played well in the preliminaries and advanced to the second round. When I was signing in for the second round of the audition, I saw a pretty incredible list of names of those who had signed in before me. One of these great candidates was in the warmup room next to mine, and he sounded really fantastic. I convinced myself that I would need to play my greatest round ever and hope for some others to stumble in order for me to be successful. I lost confidence in the value of my product. Needless to say, I didn't win that audition. I called my teacher (Nitzan Haroz) to give him the news, and I explained that I could understand the decision because even though I played very well, some of these other guys were REALLY great players. I remember him saying, "Yes, Weston, those guys are great players, but YOU are a great player, and you have something special to offer too!". My issue at the audition was not a lack of ego, rather it was a lack of confidence. You need not feel superior to your competition to be successful. You only need to feel that your product has its own unique value and is worthy of consideration regardless of who else is making a presentation that day. 

As a recitalist, I've had the good fortune of playing all over the world and often times following the path of some of my trombone heros. I would be lying if I said I never thought about how their past performances will compare to mine. When you hear that someone you greatly respect just played a recital at the same place last month or last year, the thought does cross your mind.... I hope things go well, or else they will think I'm terrible compared to that person. I remind myself that it's all about presenting your own musicianship to the best of your abilities. In the context of a recital, who cares if I'm better or worse than somebody else? Confidently present your musical ideas, and at least in your own mind, allow them to stand on their own, independent of comparison to others. 

As a colleague in an orchestra, there is no place for an inflated ego. Nobody wants to work with someone who simply thinks he's better than everybody else and doesn't respect the opinion of others. There IS a place for confidence. Nobody wants to work with someone who lacks confidence in their own musicianship and doesn't have ideas of their own. Verbally, you have to tow the fine line of making your opinion known while not stepping on the opinions of others. 

Should you need an example of how to conduct yourself, look no further than my musical hero, Wynton Marsalis. Both on and off the stage, he presents him with confidence and selflessness. If you attend a performance of his, he will recognize everyone on the bandstand except himself. He won't talk about his own greatness, but he's not self-deprecating. If you listen to him play, you won't hear any question marks come out of his bell. If you talk to him, he will show you respect. Long story short.... Get rid of the ego while developing as much confidence as you can. Some people may mistake your confidence for ego, but if you continually treat people with respect and are willing to listen more than you talk, they will realize that perhaps they mislabeled you. I hope this helps. Good luck!


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