Good Enough Vs. Never Good Enough

Good Enough Vs. Never Good Enough

Two opposing forces infect in our music ensembles. Known as the “Good Enough Syndrome” and the “Never Good Enough Syndrome,” their influence can cause students to either become lethargic (and just put in their time) or to set the bar for perfection so high that they are never satisfied with their results. Reaching a happy medium between the two is vital to the overall success of your music ensembles.

Students often settle for “good enough” when they don’t want to, or don’t know how to apply themselves in the way that would be most beneficial to them or their music ensembles. At the opposite side of the spectrum, students and their directors find themselves locked into the “Never Good Enough Syndrome” where no matter what they do, it will never fulfill or satisfy them.

Here are some ways to increase student engagement and satisfaction while still striving for excellence.

Music is Connection

As a child, I was both excited and nervous as I waited for my first private trombone lesson with Johnny Hemkes, a local brass teacher who was both a miracle worker and somewhat of a teaching legend. After sensing my nervousness, he tapped my knee and said, “You call me Johnny, I’ll call you John. We’re going to get along just fine.” 

Johnny remained my mentor but also became my friend over the next thirty-five years. While he taught me so many things  I think the most important one was the idea that music is a connection. We want our students to be connected to the music, to us, to their fellow students, to the audience, and to the history and all of the musicians that have come before them. 

Have daily conversations with your students about connection, and how it will give them a whole new perspective about their role as musicians.

A Piece of Yourself

Benjamin Zander, conductor of the Boston Philharmonic, says that one of the ways to move away from just being good enough (or never good enough)  is to declare ourselves as contributors.

Life is a place to make a contribution, not to be measured in terms of success and failure all of the time. When we measure everything in terms of success and failure, we set in motion a sense of foreboding anxiety of never being good enough. Using success and failure as our only benchmarks, creating more success doesn’t necessarily relieve the stress of measuring up, it just creates more tension and stress.

Here are some ways to get musicians under your direction to make a contribution and an investment to your music groups:

  • Talk about the idea of contribution and about how contribution is giving a piece of yourself to the greater good.
  • Have your musicians define contribution and what it means to them with regard to your ensemble. This puts the definition into their own words.
  • Create contribution cards where students declare how they will contribute to your rehearsals. Use it as an exit ticket where they write down how they showed up as contributors in your rehearsal and hand it to you as they leave. Use it as an entrance ticket where they declare how they will show up as contributors for the current rehearsal. Either way, don’t grade them. Just read them and pay attention to how they show up in the subsequent rehearsals.
  • Recognize contribution. Musicians will work harder, show more interest, and be willing to contribute again if they know you see them and honor their work.

Contribution not only transforms the individual, it can also transform the whole organization. It’s a ripple effect that keeps paying dividends. Making a contribution moves musicians away from worries about being good enough, and self-absorption, towards engagement and connection with others.

Vince Lombardi, legendary professional football coach, says, “Individual commitment to a group effort that’s what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work.”

John Maxwell, motivational speaker and author says, “Every person has a longing to be significant; to make a contribution; to be a part of something noble and purposeful.”

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Create A Band of Leaders

Leadership is vital to the success of any organization, and music ensembles are no different. Whether it comes from the first chair player or the last chair player, it doesn’t matter. In fact, it is more important to develop leadership in the players who are not section leaders because those first chair players are already committed and leaders.

Benjamin Zander says to constantly ask yourself, “How much greatness am I willing to grant in my music ensembles?”

Here are some ideas that can help you grow a band of leaders:

Have student conductors

Invite your students to conduct warm ups or run a part of the rehearsal. You might be surprised at what they come up with including their impersonations of you on the podium. That could be amusing…or scary. Either way, they are developing their own leadership qualities.

Select, Prepare, and Perform

Can students select, prepare, and perform a piece of music literature on their own without limited guidance from their director? This was the question I posed for my master thesis. The result was that they did it with surprising and refreshing success.

Seek Honest Feedback

Ask students for suggestions and then implement them, even if it is just for one attempt.

Let Students Talk About the Music

Student conversation is a distraction in the music rehearsal, unless they are talking about specific things within the music. It increases their understanding of the music, and it helps to develop their leadership skills.

Teach Each Other

Give opportunities for your students to teach each other. Both you and they will find out how much they know about the music, and they will improve at expressing themselves as leaders.

“Yes, and…”

This improvisational theater technique allows the conversation to keep going when you ask for student suggestions. The temptation is to say no to their suggestions because in our wisdom and experience we know that what they’re suggesting won’t work. However, when you can respond with, “Yes, and, we can also try…” it invites students to keep making suggestions, because you have valued their thoughts and their contribution.

Commitment vs. Attachment

The best way to talk about commitment vs. attachment is to think about being a spectator watching a sporting event at home. As spectators, we are truly committed to the result of our team winning the game. We have quality snacks, wear our team jersey, and even wear the same socks we wore the last time our team won.

If our team wins, we are happy and ready to do it all over again next week. We go about the rest of our day, getting ready for the week to begin. If our team loses, our day is ruined, we complain about “the play” that cost us the game, and the playoff spot and the championship. We complain about it for days, weeks, months, and sometimes years.

This kind of attachment doesn’t serve anyone.

Commitment to excellence in preparation and performance of our concerts is vital to make sure everyone experiencing the concert goes away satisfied and fulfilled on some level.

To be attached to the outcome of a concert that didn’t go as planned or achieve the level of excellence being strived for, keeps music performers locked into the idea that no matter what they do, it will never be good enough.

Instead,  identify what went well, and congratulate musicians for that. Then point out the areas of concern that fell short of the standard of excellence the group was committed to and then recommit to that same standard for the next concert.


In each performance, you and your music ensembles need to:

  • Make a connection to the music and the audience
  • Make a contribution to the greater good by giving a piece of yourselves
  • Commit to achieving excellence without being attached to the outcome

If you can do this, you have found a place between “Good Enough” and “Never Good Enough” that will well serve you and your music ensembles for a long time. Bravo!

John Nepper

A music educator with more than 35 years’ experience, John Nepper is committed to teaching musical elements as well as getting students to see and believe that more is possible in their lives. As a motivational speaker, John addresses students and teachers, colleges, athletic teams, and business groups. He was recently a featured speaker at the National Leadership Conference for Future Business Leaders of America, the National Association of Workshop Directors conference, and the Wisconsin Music Educators Convention. John integrates his experience, insight, and excitement with the concepts of building positive self-esteem, motivation, developing a positive attitude, and setting goals for success in life.

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