Comparisons: dangerous and inevitable

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Posted outside an institute director’s door is a quote attributed to Theodore Roosevelt.[1] It simply says: “Comparison is the thief of joy.”

It’s an idea that is so completely obvious but so difficult to act on. Much of our inner monologue is about comparisons and judgments of others. If comparisons are the antithesis of joy, then why do our brains devote so much energy to doing it?

Comparisons are damaging

That comparison are damaging to young nascent musicians is nearly obvious. For some, comparison leads to a sense of defeat. When the gap in ability is large, it seems insurmountable. It may even lead to a desire to quit completely.

Faulty comparisons can also lead students to try to rush through the repertoire, failing to take in important learning points along the way. This is illogical, of course, because one learns this repertoire for pedagogical reasons not simply to get through it. After all, it’s not just “Never rest.” It’s “Never hurry, never rest.”

Eventually, learning to be musical is not solely about recreating what’s on the reference recordings but developing an authentic and individual musical “voice.” It becomes about individual artistry; but unchecked comparison with others inhibits this unique self from emerging.

Comparisons are inevitable

If comparisons are so harmful to children learning to play a musical instrument and to our own happiness as adults, why do we engage in it? The simple answer is that we, like other primates, are “wired” to do it. Comparing ourselves to others exerts a strong protective effect. Modern non-human primates and presumably our ancestors both engaged in efforts to ensure equitable distribution of resources. Group members who receive a disproportionate amount of a resource are a threat to the survival of other members. As humans evolved, we developed the same sensitivity over not only tangible resources such as food but also abstract resources like ability, status, and popularity.

Social psychologists describe this phenomenon as the social comparison theory. This theory describes the tendency of people to measure their own value by making comparisons with others. It’s just part of our operating system. As a result of this built-in tendency, we can’t help judging both ourselves and others against the benchmark of others. As we mature, though, we develop a number of mechanisms to keep overt displays of envy and pride - the result of these comparisons - in check.

Reframing comparisons

The Suzuki world is largely devoid of explicit competition. This, of course, is by design. Although some Suzuki students also participate in music competitions of one sort or another, it’s not built-in to the method. Yet because comparison is inevitable, we have to be prepared to deal with it in constructive ways.

Use the language of artistry vs the language of achievement

Suzuki violin and viola teacher and teacher trainer Ann Montzka-Smelser described[2] the distinction as the difference between the language of artistry vs. the language of achievement. The language of achievement focuses on measurable accomplishments like SAT scores, prizes in competitions, scores, marks, and what piece you’re playing. The language of artistry, instead, refers to the accumulating experience of developing as a musician. For Suzuki students, it can refer to the development of character on the road to becoming a musician. We simply have to find ways of talking about that experience that aren’t hyper-focused on where our children are in the repertoire. Some such comparisons are necessary to help place kids in compatible groups or between parents to understand where other parents are in the process. But we can minimize exposing kids to those comparisons.

Cultivate gratitude and pleasure in the accomplishments of others

As parents, we can talk positively about other children. We can teach our children to encourage and compliment each other on their playing. Very few of our children will go on to become soloists. As a result, the bigger the community of musicians, the better! It’s not a zero-sum game because there’s always more music and room for other interpretations.

Recycle comparisons into realistic personal goals

One of the ways that mature people resolve their internal tension over comparisons with others is to look at the gap between their current state and ideal state as motivation for improvement. Similarly, with a child who compares herself to another student we can help them reframe jealousy into a meaningful goal. Because we can’t control all of the variables that explain different rates of progress, this can be a process goal such practicing every day, practicing with greater focus, or listening more. Just the act of talking about the ideas reinforces that concept that progress is largely a function of effort.

Help your children understand that high accomplishment doesn’t mean happiness

The goal of all of this is to raise happy people with strong character. In making comparisons, we make the flawed assumption that accomplishment and happiness are inextricably linked. But this is simply not so. Accomplished persons are not necessarily happier than the next guy in the rankings. Gratitude also has a calming effect on these expectations. It also helps to turn the child’s attention from others to their own selves. One helpful comparison is to watch old videos of the child from earlier in their musical development. Zooming out to this historical view often induces smiles of amazement when we do this with our daughter. You can’t help but be grateful and proud of your own development when you see how far you have come.

To compare ourselves with others is built-in to our operating system, but by being clever about using those impulses constructively, we can have children who are happy with themselves and their progress, and simultaneously experience pleasure in the performance of others.

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  1. Wikiquote lists this quotation as questionable because no primary source has been found. Whether it's authentic or not, its significance to the development of young musicians is clear.

  2. American Suzuki Institute, 2016, "Change the environment not the child", Ann Montzka-Smelser