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.
I often have wondered what people who aren’t musicians imagine when they are asked to describe the life that we musicians lead. I’ve heard everything from, “Well, you get to play all day long”, “It’s just music, why do you take it so seriously” to “So what do you actually do?”
I used to get my tail feathers all messed up over statements like these. I would be so frustrated that “other people” did not understand the dedication it takes to master a piece of music, or the sacrifices, and sometimes, even physical injuries that result from trying to bring to life a work of art. Sometimes, the artist’s pain is not metaphorical at all, it can be all too literal. It wasn’t until recently that I discovered that I had no right to be frustrated with these kinds of common responses about “What does a musician do?” from people outside the field.
I realized that it is just as much our fault that people frequently don’t understand the ins and outs of our profession, well, because we don’t want them to know. Or so it seems.
“What do you mean we don’t want them to know?!”
I believe that in the traditional world of classical music, we don’t really make an effort to let our audience know the backstory behind how the performance they are about to see rose from an inanimate page of music to a charismatic performance in a live space. Does your audience know what it took to bring this performance to them: How many rehearsals it took, how many pieces were considered before the final repertoire was chosen, the amount of practice it took, any special circumstances that surrounded the performance?
“So do you want us to make the audience feel guilty about how hard we worked?”
NO! You should never want an audience to feel sorry for you, or that they are obligated in any way to support you. Rather, relating the journey of a particular performance from start to finish, can be a great way of showing commitment and/or devotion to your audience. It’s a great way to establish a personal connection where they can understand just how deeply the act of performing means to you and how much you have worked in order to present them with a great performance.
For example, you or your chamber ensemble plans to perform a recital music that features all contemporary Swedish composers. (That actually sounds very interesting to me!) But, assuming that you or your group has a large enough audience base that you have enough audience members willing to branch out and try something new, and assuming that you have prepared and polished the music to near perfection, and assuming that you have done a great job marketing your performance to new potential audience members, what will guarantee that your audience will make a connection to these works that are (most likely) far afield from the music that they know by heart? (and yes all you smarty-pants out there, I know that was a run-on sentence.)
Even if you give a flawless performance, there is more that you can do to help you audience connect with the music. Let’s just say that, hypothetically, this contemporary music you are playing is not only very difficult (good for you for taking it on!) but it may also be rigorously academic. But, because it is contemporary and the composer still happens to be alive, you can help the audience not only understand what this piece means to you, you can research and discuss the composer’s intent for the composition.
You could share this information via a short, informal conversation before the concert, or as each piece comes up on the program. You could create an awesome mini-documentary of no more than 3-4 minutes that discusses the process of bringing the live performance to the audience. As you can see, there is so much more that you can do besides program notes.
It’s all about perception. I’ve talked a lot on this blog about the importance of establishing a deep and meaningful emotional connection with your audience. There are many creative ways to do this. But, if you only plan to depend on making that connection through the music alone, then you should prepare yourself for the possibility of falling a bit short on your goal. You can harness the power of connection in other ways beyond your instrument to ensure that your performance is has a lasting impact.
- Build (a theme park) and They Will Come (tuxedorevoltblog.wordpress.com)
- How to be a Great Musician in 5 Easy Steps. (tuxedorevoltblog.wordpress.com)