What’s the Value in Winning?
My whole life, instead of learning to win I taught myself how to avoid losing. One of the ways I did that was to devalue winning. I took to heart the adage: “It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.”
What that means to most people is, “As long as you tried your best to win, you can be satisfied with yourself.” What I took from it was, “It doesn’t matter if you win, because playing should be joyful.” My way had the convenient side effect of protecting me from the information that I hadn’t really done what it took to win.
Again and again I failed to look my failure in the eye. I didn’t ask myself, “Hey, why didn’t I win? What are those people over there doing that helped them win?” Instead I rationalized that winning wasn’t really the important thing.
Oddly enough, I finally saw the value in winning from a game I myself created. It’s called…wait for it… “The Game,” and it’s a way to tighten up my students’ skills at playing the blues. It’s described in detail in my book, “Blues Improvisation for Beginners…And Piano Teachers”
I teach all of my students to play a standard 12-note blues bass line in their left hand while improvising in their right hand. In order for the music they make up to sound like a blues solo, the left hand has to play its part perfectly. If the left hand falters, the structure of the blues collapses and the right hand solo just sounds like noise.
My students sometimes get distracted by what they are making up in their right hand, causing them to mess up the left hand. In “The Game,” a student must execute the left hand pattern perfectly five times in a row. They only have to play with the right hand once every 12 left hand notes, and if they play the left hand five times perfectly, no matter what they do with their right, they win.
Many of my students want to play great music in their right hand. I tell them to let that go, that in “The Game,” the point is to “win,” to make it to the end without messing up the left hand. If they try to be fancy musicians instead of focusing on the goal, they will have missed the point.
I sometimes have to explain to them that winning the game provides a huge benefit. If a student can make it through the left-hand pattern five times without messing up, and can actively decide when they’re going to play that one time in the right hand, they are learning to shift their focus from the fancy right hand to the interplay between the hands. That’s a skill that the masters have in spades, and its so subtle that a beginner might never discover it on their own.
As I realized the true value of the game I created, I also saw how important winning can sometimes be. There are things I can learn from actually trying to win that I simply won’t learn any other way. At the very least, winning might be the most efficient way to learn something profoundly important that is embedded in the art, or the sport, I am doing, perhaps economy, perhaps artistry, perhaps modesty.