Why Do We Perceive Playing or Performing As A Competition?

This is a rather broad question and, to my mind, covers too many aspects. To get a better perspective on competitiveness in playing, I think that we have to separate the two sides – positive and negative competitiveness.

Negative Competitiveness is the sort that drives people to strange lengths to be “better” than those around them or deride others because they are not “as good” as someone else (I have a T-Shirt that my wife gave – hopefully in jest – which reads “I like winning – but not half as much as seeing you lose”). It is a divisive and destructive energy that puts a wedge between artists, striving for, basically, the same thing – betterment

You only have to read the Guitar Noise forums to see what I perceive as a form of (third-party) negative competitiveness – “Clapton (to simply use a name as an example) is way better than Guitarist Y and if you don’t agree with me, then both you and Guitarist Y”. This is a discussion that no one is going to win, because music is, by it’s very nature, subjective – what A likes, B may not and C may not like what B does and appreciates some of what A likes to listen to. As soon as negative competitiveness creeps in, A suddenly thinks that what B and C like to listen to is rubbish, B thinks the same about A and C, whilst C looks down in disgust at what A and B think is the bee’s knees. Looking more closely, we see that the negativity is no longer about music, but, rather, the taste of the people involved. There’s no longer subjectivity or objectivity; there’s emotion and personality. Personality gives way and it becomes a clash of egos and the music becomes purely incidental, nothing more than a justification for the locking of horns.

Positive Competitiveness, on the other hand, is what causes people to strive to be better – “Clapton’s music is fantastic, one day I want to be making music as good as that”. It creates a positive feeling of not yet having reached one’s own limits – the feeling that there is still improvement to be made and the ability is there to achieve it. It, also, leaves plenty of room for one’s own individuality and creativity, as well as the inclusion of other musicians into the wish list – “I like the way Kirk Hammett does this” or “John Lennon made great use of that in his music”.

Without this sort of attitude, music would sink into a morass of conformity and blandness and creativity would wither and die because no one would have any incentive to do anything different. We would still be playing lutes, lyres and heaven knows what else. Positive competitiveness is what drives people like Chuck Berry to bring different styles of music together in a completely new form. There was never any desire to gloat on how much better he was than the musicians that he played with, just to learn everything he could from them and then add his own creativity to take music somewhere it had never been before. He was competing more with himself than with his contemporaries. I’m sure that many of the originators of new styles of music have done the same. In positive competition, music is never the loser. In fact, there is no loser. Everybody gains. It is the followers that cause the problem, claiming someone to be the “new Clapton” or “new whomever.” By doing so, they have set a target and there are bodies to be climbed over on the way to reaching that target.

Positive Competitiveness can also be used to channel a person’s energies to their own betterment, by showing them that they have the potential and can fulfill it by practice, going to a teacher, jamming, etc, etc. They are competing against themselves, striving for the goals they have set for themselves and gaining confidence along the way to tackle new challenges. The reverse is true of negative competitiveness – it destroys the will to learn and to improve (“why should I, I’m a crap player – I’ll never be as good as my teacher and he never misses an opportunity to tell me so.” or “He’s useless – he can’t sweep pick hemidemisemiquavers at 300bpm”)

Writing this short piece has drawn me to the conclusion that the negativity in competitiveness is always destructive and very ego-related – the subject matter is pretty much incidental against the size of the egos on parade (so size really does matter!). Positive competition is, in my opinion, primarily concerned with the subject matter at hand rather than the personalities (or should that be egos?) involved, in fact, there is often only one personality involved – you. It is you that is striving to improve your music and become your kind of musician. By “stealing” from other musicians, you are not putting yourself into competition with them, but rather paying them a great compliment, whilst taking one more step to achieving your goals.

A final thought: how often do you hear the best guitarists putting down other guitarists? On the contrary, they are more than happy to spread their wisdom to any guitarist – good, bad or indifferent. And the negativity? Could it be from the “Wannabe but can’t” brigade?

Here endeth the rant.