A conductor doesn’t make a sound. A concert producer doesn’t make a sound. Instead, others allow these leaders to do wondrous things by graciously giving their trust, talent, and attention. If the sounds musicians create are distillations of the culmination of their life to that point, leaders in the music field massage and mix these distillations to create even more complex cocktails of experience/ sound until we end up with an ensemble that is itself defined by the complex interactions of unique circumstances. The ensemble itself achieves its destiny. But the leader that seeks to eliminate the expression of the unique circumstances and instead stamp his/her own tyranical view prevents the ensemble from fully realizing its destiny as a collective. The ensemble can never become more than the sum of its parts if one of its parts dominates the sum.
I’ve been thinking about the concept of destiny lately. Typically, I’ve thought of it in terms of an extrinsic force that draws you to where you’re going. As I’ve read various people’s takes on finding your why, your purpose, or less often explicitly your destiny, I’ve come to believe that destiny is determined by our own unique circumstances and is a manifestation of those circumstances. People, life, and the world at large can take money, loved ones, and your pride, but nothing can take the unique circumstances of your life--the sorrow, the pain, the joy, and the love. And no one can stop you from using these to make beautiful or joyful or terrible or haunting music.
*I recently finished The Artist's Journey by Steven Pressfield. It may not give you a map to success, but it can help put the trials any artist goes through in perspective.
When have you done something worthwhile (or really anything at all), and it has taken less time than expected? Chances are these are almost “black swan” events--they happen but are exceedingly rare. Despite the improbability, we continue to think this time will be that time. Most of the time, it’s just better to settle in for the long ride and be simply grateful when something takes less time, rather than become frustrated and angry when something takes more time than expected (or perhaps the amount of time it was always going to take). Maybe we could even be thankful for the ability to overcome the challenges.
Working in music can be very difficult, especially when running an ensemble. Besides maintaining strict personal musical standards, we have to meet with donors, go to board meetings, finish the program notes, and send endless emails (among other things). With all of the work, sometimes we need to unplug, take a break, and remember our why (and perhaps listen to that piece we’ve been meaning to). It’s the only way to avoid burnout. One of my conducting teachers told me that a career in music is a marathon, not a sprint, and we should pace ourselves accordingly. How can you inspire without being inspired yourself?
Instead of making people pay for classical music, what if we switched to freeing them to make a choice? What if we “let” people pay for music? Making this shift requires us to place more trust in our audience and ourselves. We have to know we are putting out something that people want and need. We have to trust that our audience will take care of us. Some groups (like the Kaleidoscope Chamber Orchestra) are surviving and thriving this way. The waters have been tested...maybe it’s time for more of us to go for a swim.
*Check out Amanda Palmer’s fantastic Ted Talk, where she talks about her experiences with trusting her audience.
I’m increasingly finding music to be like a role-playing video game. We choose specializations that we have to level up, say clarinet, conducting, piano, and sight singing. Then, there’s an overall “musician” rating that is a combination of all of your subsets of skills. Only by working on all of them can you become a better musician. Better still, the more you work on one sub-skill, the more it helps with the other subskills. More skillful sight singing makes me a better musician, which also makes me a better clarinetist, for instance. It’s sometimes helpful to take a different perspective, to be a musician who happens to do x. With Music in mind, we might make different choices, which might be better ones.
Musicians like to cite studies that so quickly demonstrate how music makes kids smarter (and other similar arguments). Yet, we must be ever vigilant for the temptation to assume the studies say more than what they really do. If we cite an article in conversation or if we share it on social media, I would suggest that musicians 1) actually read the article and 2) understand how the researchers conducted the experiment. It’s a great time to ask questions: how big was the sample size? How are they measuring the result? What is the causal mechanism between the increase in intelligence and the presence of certain musical activities? If the study is unclear about any number of things, we should learn more by either doing more research on the study itself or by emailing the researchers. Whatever the method, our obligation remains the same: to pass on good information that meets reasonable, logic-based criteria, rather than to share information we like because it already agrees with us.
Musicians are experts in our various instruments/ voices/ conducting and the associated repertoire. Yet, there are many things outside of it that we are wholly without expertise. Being able to discern the border between what we know and what we don’t know is key to being an expert.
For all the instrumentalists, we use tools to make music. Vocalists use their vocal chords. A conductor his body and baton. The music’s origin, however, isn’t to be found in the instrument, the voice, or the baton. It’s easy to confuse the tool with the origin, the spade with the soil or flower. Yet, the music comes from within us, somewhere very deep. And we happen to have tools, a voice, or a baton to help us bring it to life. If we were to lose our tools, the music within would inevitably find another way to express itself because it’s ultimately us who has something to say.
I’ve always hated talking about a musical “product.” To me, a product is the result of a factory process. Products are shipped to a specification--everything is within an acceptable differential. This screw is almost exactly the same as all the other screws. Of course, music doesn’t come out of a factory. Although we “make” music, we “play” our instruments. Music is handmade with all manners of deficiencies and differences. These very things are what give it true life. We have an opportunity to perform something differently from (or similarly to) a colleague. Both performances meet the specifications for that particular piece. When we perform, the music that comes out is not mere replicable sound. It is the distillation of our total creative and non-creative lives into something hearable for an audience. Music is not a product, it is the very essence of a musician’s life.