Are Musicians in Crisis?
In recent years, there’s been a paradigm shift in what the career of the modern performing artist looks like. It is a difficult reality for many, as it was for me, that technical skills + talent are no longer enough to build a career in the performing arts. Make no mistake, these are still the perquisites if you want to (pardon the pun) play in the big leagues. But now we are asked to do much more than would have ever been dreamed of just a few years ago.
Sure– teaching, being a good orchestral musician as well as being knowledgeable of the standard solo repertoire, knowing how to lead a master class or give a pre-concert lecture– these have always been multi-faceted and reasonable expectations for a performing musician. But could you start an El Sistema nucleo or teach a room full of 9 year olds if asked to do so? What do you know about attracting and engaging audiences, marketing, and networking through social media? I mean more than just Facebook and Twitter; what about other popular platforms like Pinterest, YouTube, Vimeo, Digg, Tumblr, Instagram and Reddit? How’s your
ability to run a rehearsal, or apply for grants, or make a budget, or itemize a strategic plan for any ensemble or group with which you might be performing?
Can you easily translate what you do when speaking to others? Or better yet, can you translate what you do when writing to others– and by others I mean potential funders? Can you make a clear
and simple argument about your passion for the art you practice? Do you want to play in an orchestra? That’s great– but how will you be able to contribute to the sustainability of your group? Are you familiar with good fiscal management? Do you have an arsenal of audience engagement ideas that you can offer to the Artistic Director?
And what about money? Do you have a plan in place to pay off those loans? Are you putting away money for a rainy day when work slows down? What are you doing to get more paid performance opportunities? Do you have a strategy to sustain your career over the long-term?
STOP. ENOUGH QUESTIONS ALREADY.
Okay— now breathe. I’ll agree that was a little rough. It’s okay if you don’t have answers to all of these questions (yet). I didn’t a few years ago. That’s when I confronted the reality that if I wanted to be a musician of the 21st century, I had to do more. The truth is, at first I didn’t like all the extra stuff. There once was a time when I thought that I would jump through the hoops of higher education, get my degree and win my orchestra job. Or at the very least, I would gig enough to make ends meet until I could win that big job. I wanted the simplicity of practice, perform, repeat.
But what I learned in my struggle to grapple with the enormity of all these new necessary qualifications was that I loved music more than I didn’t like all the other stuff.
I wanted a life filled with music, to perform, to champion music of others. I wanted to be on the scene, I wanted to be connected, I wanted to live the life of a performing musician. That’s when I realized that all the other stuff was present in the lives of nearly all the professional musicians I knew. This wasn’t knowledge I had to learn as a penalty for failing at a performance career as I had imagined and chided myself so many times. This was the real education. This stuff was what made the life I wanted possible.
I urge you to think big and embrace an optimistic attitude towards all that you do in music. When learning a new piece of music you might run across something that you can’t already perform. You know you will slowly learn how to bring it to life. It’s the same idea with these entrepreneurial-administrative-organizational-whatever-you-want-to-call-it skills (all the other stuff). If you don’t know how, just invest some time to learn. It’s an experience of growth, humility, and learning–ironically, it’slike learning to play a new instrument.
Auditions are a Funny Thing (I Think).
I’d like start off by saying welcome back and that I apologize for the hiatus in content last week. I was in the middle of a whirlwind of travel and preparation for a major audition that I took this last Sunday. I had been preparing for this audition for quite some time and last week was final push to the big day.
Auditions are a funny thing I think. They can be the most perilous moments or decisive victories of our careers. We strive for months to attain perfection in what may only be a 10 minute window for an audition committee of people whom we often can’t see behind a screen, or that we may not even know. But we train ourselves to meet what seems to be impossible circumstances nevertheless. We push our bodies to achieve a level of technical grace that we never before thought possible of ourselves. Many of you readers know exactly of what I’m talking about.
As I was walking to up the steps to the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. on the night before my audition (I was attending a National Symphony Concert prior to my audition the following day), I couldn’t help but feel the electric excitement about the imminence of my performance to happen the following day. It was a feeling of what some sports psychologists call “flow”. It’s that feeling where you have conquered your own shortcomings and you move past anxiety, you move past the way you physically feel, for I was getting over a nasty cold, but you suddenly feel as if you are floating above everything while still connected to it. I thought about this feeling– this energy about performing, quite a bit on my four hour bus ride back to NYC. I realized that what I was feeling was 100% pure authenticity about who I was as a performer, what I was doing, and why I was doing it.
This is the feeling I have written about many times to describe what is fundamental for effective performance. It is necessary for the kind of performance that grabs audiences and doesn’t let them go. When you have this feeling of mastery and of “flow”, you know it, and you feel like it is possible for you to do anything.
I had this feeling another time as well, when I played Richard Strauss’s Horn Concerto Op. 11 at the historic Paramount Theater in Kentucky a few years ago. You stand before the orchestra and you bare your soul to the audience and the orchestra. Does this sound a bit melodramatic? Yes, I’ll admit that it does– and it should because that is exactly what music requires of us. Auditions are very much the same way only with complete anonymity.
You walk out onto that empty stage stripped of name, voice, face, gender, title, resume, familiarity. All you are left with are the sounds that you are able to produce. If they are hollow and purely technical, like exercises from a book of etudes, you can’t expect to grab hold of your audition committee and pull them to the edge of their seats. All they have is your sound, you have to be the one to infuse it with your soul, with your will and with your determination.
That is what I learned most from my experience this last weekend; that authenticity and truthfulness is centrally important to the work we do as performing artists. To truly make a connection with our listeners, we have to be in complete flow with the music, our instruments, and ourselves.