It’s easy and perhaps good to fall into a routine. Every once in a while, it’s good to wonder about the last time we did something for the first time. Not only does it provide excitement and a nice change, it can remind us why life is good. When was the last time you did something for the first time?
In music, we rarely have the time we want or the time the we need to do our best work. We only have the time that’s given. We can do incredible things if we spend it wisely.
How should we measure success in classical music? In bios, we always see how many records a musician has sold, the list of people/ organizations they’ve played with, who they’ve studied with. In a world where classical music is relevant to more people, what do we measure? “What gets measured gets managed,” according to Peter Drucker (famous for his thoughts on management). Should we sell more albums, play with better people, study with ever more famous teachers? How does this make classical music relevant? If we ditch those metrics, what do we use instead? Of course, some things aren’t measurable in neat containers--fun, ingenuity, creativity. How does one measure creativity? It seems you miss the point if you do measure it. Yet, how do we determine the success of our field? Maybe it’s in wonder, enchantment, and magic, the ability to inspire audiences to dream. But how do measure that? I don’t have a clue.
Most organizations in classical music are nonprofit organizations. In the US, that means that the IRS officially recognizes them as providing a service valuable to the public as a whole. They have unpaid boards that administer them on behalf of the public (the true owners of all nonprofit organizations). This provides perks for the ensembles and the donors--donations become a tax deduction for donors and the nonprofit can avoid paying some taxes. With this model, however, comes the mentality that classical music provides something like cultural vegetables to the population. There is no need to be competitive or to change what we do (ever) because of our inherent (oftentimes unexplained or explained with dubious logic) value. I would submit that we need more ensembles that are for-profit organizations, that seek to fill a specific niche in the market rather than provide a service that is worthwhile. Many would consider this “selling out>’ Yet, the former does not exclude the latter. Ensembles can provide a valuable service to society by being fundamentally profitable and competitive on the market. An orchestra should compete with video games, movies, and sports events. Why should someone attend a live performance? One way to figure it out is to have multiple iterations of ensembles (many of which will fail) that build on the traditional models or change them altogether by providing a service to people who are willing to give up 1) their money and 2) other things to attend to it. If you tell someone why a joke is funny, you get a funny look without pulling any genuine laughter out of the other person. We could avoiding making arguments about why classical music is important if we put out art that is important to people. Saying this “should” evoke certain emotions is not a great way to start a story or a joke. And it’s a terrible way to start a concert.
I tend to think of art as a gaze. Whenever we perform, we’re telling someone, “Hey, I have something I think is cool and that I believe it is worth your time and attention.” It places a responsibility on us. We get to determine what is worth the attention of our fellow humans. If we consistently place things in front of an audience that is not worth their attention, they will eventually stop looking. It starts with personal belief in what we are doing. Then, we must communicate those beliefs to others in a language that they can understand. Leonard Bernstein mastered many things. Despite his Harvard education and place among the highest artists, his native language was human. He helped others understand why music moved him and how it could move them. Classical music was worth the attention of his audiences, including children. He maintained their gaze his whole life.
Music is about being the best--playing faster, higher, more emotional than other musicians. Anything less than perfection isn't music at all. Those who make mistakes are fundamentally lesser people. Musicians win--they win the audience's attention, competitions, and accolades. At its core, music is about the result and the musician.
Music is about the process. It's about engaging others and working with them to elevate ourselves and the audience into a higher realm, where dreams soar and humanity grows. Music is an excuse to get together, to dance, to laugh, to be moved. It adds to life without subtraction and division.
Two ways to think about music. There are many more. What do our actions say about how we view music?
With a string of failures over the past couple of years, I've begun to think that what one does after failure is more important than what one does after success. Failure is a time for reflection on what to do better. One must be brutally honest with oneself. Ideally, one should know whether to quit or not. Telling the difference is one of life's greatest challenges. Above all, however, one must make a full decision. Quitting a project, a job, a career comes with benefits and troubles. Trying again comes with its own difficulties. But deciding the in-between is the most treacherous, where different forces will pull you in multiple directions until you shatter into many pieces. What do you do after failure?
As musicians, we tend to be busy people. We always have something to practice, a rehearsal or performance, somebody to meet. We also tend to live in busy cities that encourage us to hustle to our next spot, to be faster than our competition. We are constantly going somewhere that we sometimes (or all the time) aren’t where we are in that moment. We’re already onto the next thing. We “get” through meetings with people. We don’t really spend time with them. Other people start to expect that, and in the end nobody has any value. In turn, this hurts self-esteem and makes everyone anxious, generally unhappy, and desperate for human connection. I certainly get like this. However, I just recently saw the power of being in a moment with someone. We were kidding around a bit. He said something to the effect of, "You should be doing something else." I asked, "What else should I be doing?" It sounds silly, especially in a platonic situation. Yet, it changed his demeanor, and it also meant something to me. Time suddenly became richer. I have to wonder what can I do to have more moments like these?
I recently asked my Facebook friends what they thought about dating a musician. Virtually everyone who answered were themselves musicians. Although one person suggested that you “Don’t. Do. It.” Others suggested that they couldn’t imagine being married to anyone else because they felt only another musician could truly understand the passion they felt and the work they put into their field. It can be hard to explain to other people who we are and what we want, but there are those who understand regardless. Whether we do professional music, play for fun, or are simply resonate with classical music, it helps to talk to and be around those who understand it. (Of course, there are plenty of jaded musicians who have completely forgotten their why and come to hate it.) Imagine a group of people truly resonating together, regardless of field. It can leave us refreshed and ready to do the hard work that must be done, the pain in the passion. When was the last time you were around a group like this? What can we do to spend more time refreshing yourself with other people who have joy in producing music? How do those closest to us fit in with our passions? A conversation about why we do what we do seems to be a good starting point.
I recently have restarted my elementary studies of the piano. Although I passed piano “proficiency” in college (over 10 years ago!), I’ve never been satisfied with my piano abilities. There’s something greatly rewarding about playing an instrument that I’ve only played in my adulthood. Perhaps, it’s because I can play without expectations of myself or the need to play well enough to impress someone. I can play for me--and for the simple enjoyment of the challenge and the music. It reminds me that one ultimately "plays" music not "works" music.
As I have worked out of one of the very basic piano books, I have worked to play the solos without looking at the keyboard. After a bit of practice, I amaze myself at how my fingers will make certain (very simple) jumps without my rational brain really knowing where those particular notes are. In fact, aside from when I’m actively practicing, too much control causes me to miss them. I’m learning I must trust myself. I think this applies to a lot of other areas of my life, too. Once you do the initial work or make the initial decisions, you have to trust yourself that you will do what is best. Mistakes can be corrected, apologies made. But amazing action requires trust in oneself.