When I started fifth grade my family moved to a new house near a really fantastic piano teacher. My mom signed me up for lessons, along with my little brother, Joseph. As the oldest child, I was used to being the strongest, smartest, and fastest kid in the house. Imagine my devastation when my little brother quickly passed me up in piano playing skills.
Piano Sibling Rivalry
I loved studying the piano. I practiced hard, even getting up at five in the morning to pound out finger exercises before school. Still, it was my brother who got invited to accompany the school choir, my brother who got fives on his exams and competition pieces while I only got fours, and my brother who learned faster and played better the pieces I’d studied only a few months previous. It surprised me how frustrated this made me feel. I eventually asked my piano teacher not to assign him any pieces that I’d already learned, just so it wouldn’t kill me to hear him playing them.
Without knowing it, I had gotten caught up in comparing myself to my brother. Instead of enjoying the piano and my own progress, I let it bother me that my younger brother seemed to learn faster. I got over it after a few years. Now I feel nothing but delight when I hear my brother play. Still, even as an adult, I’m often tempted to compare myself to others in all sorts of ways.
To Compare is Human
In an article in Psychology Today, Sociology Professor Deborah Carr states that people have a natural tendency to compare themselves to others. She suggests that instead of comparing yourself to those around you, channel that energy into comparing yourself now to yourself in the past. This kind of temporal comparison, an evaluation of yourself over time, can actually be useful and motivating. On the other hand, comparing yourself to others is not as helpful.
For example, say you’re performing at a piano recital. As you listen to the other performers, you’ll hear some that are more advanced than you. Others will be less advanced. Some students will make more mistakes than you did, and others will make less.
If you are comparing yourself to others, you might think, “I’m not as good as some of the other pianists here.” This can leave you discouraged or even wanting to quit. If instead you compare yourself to pianists who are not as good as you, it’s true this can give you a temporary feeling of satisfaction. But beware! If you rely on comparing yourself favorably to others in order to feel good, you might become afraid of trying new things because you know you’re going to be back at the bottom of the heap.
Compare Yourself Now to Yourself in the Past
You have no control over how good the other pianists are, how fast they learn, or how much time they have to practice. You only have control over you. Remember, instead of comparing yourself to others, compare yourself to how well you did in the past. If you’ve been practicing and learning new things, then you’re going to get better, and that’s going to make you feel good.
If you’re not getting better, that could be a signal to you that you need to do something different so that you can keep improving. Take an honest look at your playing and your practicing. Ask yourself what you can do. Do you need to practice more consistently? Are the pieces you’re learning too hard or too easy? Talk to your piano teacher if you don’t feel like you’re improving and can’t figure out why. Sometimes when you’re learning something you’ll go through periods where you don’t seem to be making much progress. Patient, consistent effort should soon see your improvement take off again.
Look Ahead to a Better Future
You can also compare yourself now to the way you want to be in the future. Do you want to be a better sight reader? Do you want to get better at improvising? Do you want to learn to play better by ear? Think of steps you can take to get the skills you want, and then take those steps. Notice the progress you’ve made over time, and look ahead toward an even better future. It’s a great way to keep yourself motivated to make the small daily choices that add up to fantastic piano playing.
So don’t compare your piano playing skills to the piano playing skills of others. You don’t know how they got where they are, or where they’re going. Only compare yourself now to where you were in the past, and also to where you want to be in the future.