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Compare and Despair

Claire Allen

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Published: October 24, 2015 at 1:56 AM [UTC]

swirling violins

Comparison is human nature, and the temptation to compare ourselves to others is particularly strong in Violin World. A lot of people play the violin. A lot of people play the violin really, really well. And learning to cope with this fact is something that every violinist has to confront at some point in their career.

Ignatian spirituality has a saying: "Compare and despair." When we compare ourselves to someone else, we will inevitably end up depressed. Because the thing is, we're not comparing ourselves to the other person. We're comparing ourselves to our idealized image of that other person. And that's something that no one can live up to.

I've seen this in my violin studio over the last few months. I've seen students terrified to play out because they hear other students who they think are better than them. I've seen parents who are discouraged because another child is playing better than theirs.

And it breaks my heart.

I adore all my students, for exactly who they are. Whenever someone says to me, "So-and-So plays SO AMAZINGLY IN TUNE, it seems so easy for them!" I realize that yes, they saw So-and-So play at the recital, and yes, So-and-So had wonderful intonation. What they didn't see was the previous two years of lessons with me, where I changed everything about their violin technique, made them play hours and hours of scales, and insisted that they do it over and over again. "Tall violin. Do it again. Check your Magic X. Do it again. No, that's a 4th finger. Do it again." Two years of that resulted in So-and-So being able to play their advanced piece really well in tune. Believe me, no one is born with perfect intonation. We ALL work on it. For those for whom intonation is a little more intuitive, they have their own share of challenges (AHEM, bow hold, anyone?)

I've had beginning students look at other students their own age and feel despondent because they didn't start younger. It's unfair to compare a violinist who has been playing six months to a violinist who has been playing for four years. As someone who started at the age of 9 in my public school orchestra, I think I spent at least the first 10 years of life as a violinist upset because I didn't start as a 4-year-old prodigy. As a teacher, I see that beginners of every age have their own advantages and challenges. Violin isn't easy, for anyone.

I am not immune to comparison, as much as I might wish to be. Two months ago, a friend of mine and I took the same orchestra audition. She got in. I didn't. I spiraled into a pretty dark place in my mind. I cried for two straight days. I lamented the fact that she had a better tone, seemed like a nicer person who I was sure everyone liked more than me, and was even better-dressed. I wallowed in imagined inferiority for longer than I wanted to, and have slowly been pulling myself out of it.

One of the things I realized is this: I cannot be anyone but myself. I cannot play like anyone but myself. And any time I spend saying "Why is this person so much better than me?" rather than saying, "How can I make this sound the way I want it to?" is wasted. So I chose a new recital program. I went to my violin teacher and asked her how I could improve the weaknesses in my playing. And I went to the practice room, every day, and I worked on those weaknesses. I did not blindly play through repertoire and hope that it would magically get better. I worked slowly, and carefully, and with great awareness of how I was doing everything I was doing. I have the hope that when I am completely immersed in my own sound and am able to make my playing an authentic representation of who I am, I won't fall into the pit of comparing and despairing, because I will be so in love with music that I don't care what else is going on.

I've had people say to me that it seems like I have it all together. I have a beautiful website (Weebly has AMAZING templates, you guys. I can't code to save my life.), a thriving studio, and lots of creative ideas. This is true. I've worked hard to get to where I am. And most of the time, I don't post on Facebook or on my blog when I have a bad day. The truth is yes, I'm at a place right now where I am the most put-together that I have been in about a decade. You didn't see the years I spent in therapy trying to cope with my crippling perfectionism, the tendonitis that left me unable to play my violin for the first year of music school, or the year I spent in graduate school rebuilding my technique from the ground up. You don't see the moments where I am so overwhelmed by everything everyone expects of me that I have to sit and cry before I can move forward. You may not know that despite everything I have going for me in my professional life, I miss my father (who died five and a half years ago) every single day and would give just about anything to see him again, even for five minutes. These are just some of the things I have been through. I work hard to focus on what I am grateful for in my life (which is a lot!), and on feeling confident in who I have become. But it's hard. And I have a feeling that the people who say "Claire has it all together, I want to be her!" might not feel that way if they knew the full price of being me.

You don't know the full story of whoever it is you are comparing yourself to. And chances are that if you did, you would choose your own, rather than being them. It's hard enough to be yourself. Don't waste time lamenting that you're not someone else.

For my students reading this: I am here for you. I am here to walk with you on your violin journey. I want to help you learn to love your sound and to have true confidence in your playing. I love you, and I promise that I NEVER spend your lessons thinking, "I wish I was teaching Other Student" right now. When I teach, I am totally focused on you and how I can help you in the moment.

To everyone: Be kind to yourself. Seek to be authentic, rather than unique. Focus on what YOU can do, and love yourself as yourself. Because you are worthy of all the love in the world, and we need you exactly as you are.

Originally posted on my website

From Linda Goulder
Posted on October 24, 2015 at 5:55 PM
Thank you, Claire Allen for your inspiring story. It gives me hope at my age that anything is possible. I can identify with the trials you've endured because as a classical vocalist. I have and still endure these same trials on a regular basis.

I'm now working on expanding my studies to progressive violin studies Russian method. I'm very blessed to have a wonderful teacher who teaches the Russian Method. My hope is that she can eventually mold me into a violinist for entry into a conservatory of music and hopefully an audition with a well known regional orchestra. I know at my age,never having played a violin until recently.

I'm going to have to cram twenty years of progressive violin studies into advanced studies, in order to achieve my goals. I know it won't be easy, that it is a long shot at best due to my age. I want to see where this journey takes me and just how far, I can go with it.I admire your honesty, Claire and wish you all the best in your career.


Posted on October 24, 2015 at 6:26 PM
While going thru a newly setup archive for the Detroit Jewish News,I came across an article about Josef Gingold, who was then the newconcert master for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. It was of particular interest to me as part of
the article is a photo of Josef Gingold that was taken by me.
The article can be seen at:

Herman Krieger

From Terez Mertes
Posted on October 24, 2015 at 7:15 PM
What a great post. Thanks for sharing.
From Jim Hastings
Posted on October 24, 2015 at 9:28 PM
This should help a lot of people -- I can definitely relate to it. I had six teachers over a long stretch of years. I was nearing the end of school and had been listening to one of Isaac Stern’s vintage recordings. When I told one teacher that I aimed to play the same piece -- and play it the way Stern played it -- my teacher said, “Yes, but you have to be Jim, too.”

I’ve since managed to detach myself better from the comparison game and accept that we’re each individual and different.

Your post reminded me of something I heard on radio this past week -- though I forget at the moment who said it. The gist was that playing isn’t a zero-sum game. Someone else’s playing well doesn’t prevent you or me from being the best we can be.

Posted on October 24, 2015 at 10:34 PM
what a great post :) Thank you.
Posted on October 24, 2015 at 11:50 PM
This is a great post. Thanks!
From marjory lange
Posted on October 25, 2015 at 2:11 AM
Lovely post, and particularly timely for me, as I'm playing my first recital in decades tomorrow afternoon.
From Pamela Carr
Posted on October 25, 2015 at 11:37 AM
What a lovely, encouraging post. Thank you. I will remember it as I spend this time struggling with my own intonation!
From Christian Vachon
Posted on October 25, 2015 at 12:13 PM
Hi Claire,

Really great and inspiring post!



Posted on October 26, 2015 at 2:38 PM
Although I am not a violinist I loved this article and it can be applied to most life gifts. I especially like the closing comment to be authentic rather than unique. Thank you.
From Christian Lesniak
Posted on October 26, 2015 at 6:44 PM
Claire, I really enjoyed your post. We often forget and minimize the gifts we bring to music, and doubt ourselves, focusing on what others are doing, instead of working to cultivate our own strengths.

Comparing can be so unfair - Even people at the top of their game have to struggle with the shadows of their predecessors or contemporaries. Igor Oistrakh has so many fantastic recordings, but is still seen by many as the son of David Oistrakh. I just lost my father last week, and it's very painful. He was an incredibly sensitive and poetic pianist, and he also had to deal with comparisons and expectations.

Still, music is a natural way to express emotion, and if we can accept our own pain, we can hopefully express it through our music in a way that connects to other people's suffering, so that we all come to understand that we are not so alone. I think that when we understand how music connects us, then it can help us to get past the destructive competitive ideas that hamper us.

Posted on October 27, 2015 at 5:49 PM
Your article was full of such wisdom that I printed it out so I could read it again and again. Thank you for sharing.
From Don Sullivan
Posted on October 27, 2015 at 8:45 PM
Wow! Thank you for such an amazing and compassionate blog! For an adult student like myself, I've had to step back and tell myself exactly what you posted. Your students are blessed to have you. Thank you for the reminder! All the best to you.
Posted on October 28, 2015 at 3:54 AM
Well stated. Thanks for sharing this,

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