I graduated from a high school in rural West Virginia having won all of the awards for saxophone and jazz performance in the state possible, and thought I was kind of a big deal. When I arrived at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro as a freshman, I had a rude awakening. I was just one of about 20 kids in the studio who all had that same experience. Not only that, I had to compete against grad students in their late 20s for places in ensembles. I adjusted my viewpoint, worked harder, and found a place there. Not long after graduating I moved to Chicago- and found yet another rude awakening. Now I was competing against world class pro players and their students for gigs. It seemed that every level I achieved unlocked a higher level above it. This is a pattern that has repeated many times in my career.
One of my high school students recently attended a Jamey Abersold jazz camp. Let’s call him Jim. Jim is the lead alto player in his school's jazz ensemble, gets high marks at local solo/ensemble festivals, and is a generally promising young player. His improvisational skills are limited, yet in local circles he is praised for his playing and held up as an example. Although he is in all respects a nice kid, he has developed an assessment of his abilities that I struggled to rectify without being negative. Upon arrival at camp, Jim had a "come to Jesus moment." There he found lots of students his own age who not only played their instrument at a high level but also knew lots of tunes and played and improvised very well. He realized that on his home turf, he is one of the top players in his age group, yet globally he had a lot of catching up to do.
This is not to say that we shouldn't be supportive of budding players and give them positive reinforcement. It is however important to build into teaching models a sense of perspective about the larger world. When you have students who are interested in joining the highly competitive world of professional music performance, its a disservice not to expose them to a global mindset.
No matter where you are or what you're doing, there is another player at that moment practicing and improving. At some point you’re going to cross paths with that person, and if you aren’t working just as hard, you may come away with a negative personal assessment. Maybe this isn't the best way to think all of the time, but it can be helpful in keeping things in perspective.
At this point in my career, I know that there will always be players further along the continuum than myself. I could stick my head in the sand and refuse to progress, or continue on with the work of trying to improve a little bit every day. All I can do is continue to develop goals and work hard to accomplish them. Whereas there is always an element of competition in the music business, at this point I'm trying to achieve goals more for my own satisfaction and growth as an artist, rather that to beat someone else for a gig. This is what sustains my desire to practice.