I had one of those “It’s 2 AM in the morning, why on earth am I awake?” nights and I started thinking about expectations. (It’s amazing what pops into one’s head in the middle of the night.) I spent 24 years in corporate marketing before I retired and I spent many of those years dealing with performance reviews based on expectations.
The typical review was based on ‘below expectations’, ‘meets expectations’, and ‘exceeds expectations’. These, of course, were one’s boss’s expectations. How they were derived were more about how much your boss liked you or what the corporation set as a required bell curve for reviews than how well you did your job. This is because expectations are highly subjective and very difficult to define concretely. I remember one time where I felt I had a stellar year and got a ‘meets expectations’ review. I talked to my boss and he agreed that I had a stellar year but then said, “I expected that of you.”
There are ways to try to quantify expectations – e.g. ‘put together 4 marketing kits for the year’. Well, if you put together 5 did you exceed expectations? Only if your boss thinks so. Maybe he would expect 6 in order to get an ‘exceeds’ expectations review.
So how does this relate to playing the horn? I think how ‘good’ we are is based mostly on expectations. For a pro there is a standard of expectations that needs to be met to get that gig or to get an orchestra job or a teaching position. Who defines what that standard is? The person or group who is doing the hiring. They may expect a candidate to play musically as most important and not mind a missed note or three. (Hopefully.) Or they may base everything on technical capability. They may even reject a candidate because he/she is too good and they expect that the person will leave soon for a better position. Did the person who gets the job ‘exceed’ their expectations? Probably but you’ll never know.
For the amateur I think expectations are more personal. There can be the same audition judging expectations for the community orchestra but many times our expectations define a ‘good’ practice day from a ‘bad’ one or a good horn solo in the orchestra from a bad one. You may think you didn’t play your best but the audience, with entirely different expectations, thinks it was wonderful.
When working with a teacher, I think it’s probably a good idea to talk about expectations. Rather than thinking your teacher expects you to play something perfectly (which is impossible) they most likely expect you to just improve. If they assign ‘this, this, and that’ find out what their expectations are. Maybe for the next lesson they just want the dynamics correct and don’t care so much about getting all the notes right. If they assign the Ab major scale most likely they expect you to know it by memory at the next lesson. But find out.
I usually write down how I think I did as I practice but it occurs to me that it might be beneficial to first write down what I expect of myself for my practice session. Maybe it’s just playing four measures of a piece I’m working on without any clams or playing the first two lines of a Kopprasch exercise without missing any notes. Whatever it is it needs to be realistic or I’m just setting myself up for failure and guaranteeing a ‘bad’ day. If I can come up with a reasonable set of expectations and accomplish them – the more specific I make them the easier it will be to determine if I accomplished them – then I can walk away from a practice session feeling good. There will always be days when I don’t meet my expectations but at least I’ll have a solid reason for why it’s a bad day and a goal to do better the next day. Maybe I’m preaching to the choir but that’s what happens with ideas formulated at 2 AM.