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The Glory of Being the Middle Dog

Everyone wants to be top dog. Our collective image of the “top dog” is someone who excels in a given field and who therefore reaps the rewards: the plushest bed, the meatiest bone. But succeeding at any goal requires work: You practice, question your sanity, practice more, succeed at an interim goal, rage, rage against your shortcomings, practice more and finally take an incremental step forward. Any worthwhile goal involves delayed gratification because, as the cliché goes, it’s a marathon, not a sprint. (Unless you’re a sprinter. Then you still practice being a sprinter for many years.)

It was that way for me as a classical percussionist in my quest to win an audition for an orchestra. The timeline from my first group lesson to hearing my name called as a winner was 17 years. It was a long and winding road. Along the way I hit milestones like getting accepted to Juilliard, concerto competition wins and going to competitive summer festivals that made me think I was headed in the right direction. And there were many devastating potholes: brutal performance anxiety followed by an ulcer at age 23; auditions I wasn’t even allowed to attend because my resume wasn’t good enough; knowing I’d played well at an audition, then not getting advanced to the finals.

One thing helped tremendously: I never had the pressure of being labeled “talented” or “naturally gifted” or “a natural.” After three months of fifth-grade group music lessons, our band director decided to rank us and placed me second out of three students. So right from the beginning I was given the gift of being in the anonymous middle. 

Let me explain. At number two, you’re neither the best nor the worst. No one pays attention to number two, so you are free to concentrate on what matters, and what matters is the process. You not only shake off everyone else’s expectations but the added weight of your own. You’re free to take side trips that might be fruitful. Learning a new snare drum grip at age 25 was a frightful step backwards; I sounded like a beginner for a long time. But after many hours over many months, it paid off. I could play better than I could play with the old grip.

The problem with being the top dog is that people usually tell that to the dog. They praise the dog. The top dog’s ego becomes invested in maintaining its status. Over the years I saw students like this, the ones who were labeled “talented.” Some thrived and achieved their goals. Others became overly afraid of failure. They didn’t want to ask the simple questions — the crucial ones that lead to understanding — because then they might be mistaken for beginners. The top dog is afraid to say, "I don’t know."

If you’re told right from the start that you’re the best, how does it feel to lose, even temporarily? It’s easy to get defensive to protect your spot on the pedestal. You make excuses after not winning an audition: The committee was hungry, the room was too cold, you played last. Or perhaps the committee had just eaten lunch, the room was too hot, and you played first. These excuses may or may not be valid, but it’s detrimental to invest energy in them. Protecting your ego is a distraction. The only place to concentrate your energy after a failure is in learning. 

That’s another gift of not being “a natural.” “Talent” — by definition — is what you have before you start to work. If you have a setback but aren’t relying on talent, you instead rely on the process of hard work to overcome it.

When I write about failure, oftentimes I put the word in quotation marks. Failure, after all, is never absolute. Picture a graph on the wall charting the course of the S&P 500 from its inception in 1957 until today. You walk towards it until the only years in your field of vision are from 2007 to 2009. What might be your reaction? That the stock market is a horrible place to invest money? Now take a few steps back and focus on the years from 2009 to 2015. Suddenly, you see growth. Profit. The potential for success. If you step back far enough, what you see from left to right is an upward trajectory, a great big mountain to climb. The only real failure, then, is giving up somewhere along that path.

All musicians have heard comments like: “You went to [insert music conservatory]? You must be talented.” Or, “I wanted to play [insert instrument] but I wasn’t talented enough”. I smile when I hear these because — news flash — “natural ability” actually matters very little. No one would argue that winning the genetic lottery isn’t an advantage. But without hard work, even the most naturally talented runner would be only 20 meters out when the winner crosses the tape. What matters most is passion for what you do. Passion gives you the drive to work impossibly hard in order to inch closer to your goal every day.

When you finally win, go ahead and curl up in your plush bed. Enjoy being the top dog for a while. Just until you pick a new goal.


Patti Niemi has been a member of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra’s percussion section since 1992. Previously, she performed with the New World Symphony from 1988 to 1992 under conductor Michael Tilson Thomas. She is author of the book Sticking It Out: From Juilliard to the Orchestra Pit, available for purchase on Amazon.

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