Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Passion and Success

Norman Lebrecht at Slipped Disc posts a brief essay about the tribulations of auditions: "Many musicians are destroyed by success, but no one is destroyed by failure." This echoes a comment by Joseph Heller, the author of Catch 22. In reply to a question about which is better for your writing, success or failure he answered "failure." When asked which he preferred he answered "success."

Brinton Smith, principal cello of the Houston Symphony is trying to console aspiring musicians having to do difficult auditions:
It takes incredible bravery to take part in this system, and every player who does has my respect and gratitude. Remember the words of Kipling- triumph and disaster are both imposters. We need jobs of course, and have to do what it takes until we find one, but we didn’t go into music to find a job, we went into music because of what it means to us and in the world. Guard and protect that belief and that passion, remember why you play, and never stop learning or trying to improve, even if you win.
Many musicians are destroyed by success, but no one is destroyed by failure. If there’s any lesson to my own career it’s that every failure is temporary. Play without regrets and play music- we are rooting for you.
This is the kind of standard boilerplate that we all hear early in our careers. The intent is simply to encourage you to keep trying until you succeed. But that sentence about musicians being destroyed by success but no one is destroyed by failure is just nonsense. Follow the link and read the comments:
What a pile of rubbish. Many a fine musician is destroyed every day by the constant beatings at auditions, and their ‘failure’ to win a job. I’m sure the view from his ivory tower (with health insurance and holiday pay) is delightful and his pompous words will resonate with the idealistic 19 year olds
While you need to love the music to put in the work, who except trust fund babies or those with spouses who earn enough to support them can prattle on about getting into music purely for the love of it and not caring about compensation or feel the effects of constant failure? It’s this nonsense that helps society feel okay about devaluing the worth of artists and feel they aren’t worth paying a living wage because somehow being able to eat and pay bills isn’t as important to a cellist as it is to an accountant.
Towards the bottom of the comments are some lengthy ones also worth reading, including one explaining his view further by Brinton Smith, so go read them yourself.

I used to do a lot of concerts with a very fine flute-player. He was working hard at orchestral excerpts, preparing himself for an audition for an orchestral position. He mentioned to me that around two hundred flute-players applied for every opening. He did eventually win the principal flute position in the local orchestra and he has been there ever since (about twenty-five years). The best musicians, who also persevere, for years if necessary, do often win orchestral positions, but if you just review the numbers you will see that the vast majority simply will not. There are too many aspiring musicians graduating from music schools and too few orchestras to absorb them. There is, in other words, a permanent disparity between jobs and those who want them.

What keeps this Ferris Wheel turning is the passion that attracts people to music. Music is a transcendental art form that rises above all the trials and tribulations in this world. It is a perennial comfort and inspiration. But it is also a particularly difficult career to pursue and one that for most people, will inevitably end in failure. Young musicians really deserve the respect of being told the odds. If you are a flute-player the odds of your winning any one audition might be 200 to 1. But even if you reconcile yourself to doing 200 auditions, this is still no guarantee that you will win a position.

If your career choice involves being a soloist, then the odds are much worse! For example, my career choice was basically "international guitar virtuoso" and while I did pretty well--few guitarists get multiple opportunities for nation-wide broadcasts of their performances of major concertos with well-known orchestras--the reality was and is that there are perhaps five guitarists in the world at any given time who have prosperous careers as soloists. All the rest eke out a living by teaching.

I think that if we were to re-word the claim about success and failure it might come out like this: Some musicians who achieve success do so by compromising their artistic integrity; those who do not succeed may do so either because they did not compromise or because there was no market for what they had to offer. As Jordan Peterson has pointed out, it is extraordinarily difficult to monetize creativity.

This is the Victoria Symphony Orchestra conducted by Tania Miller playing the Symphony in Three Movements by Stravinsky. The principal flute is my old friend, Richard Volet.


Will Wilkin said...

It is not just music. I know 2 people who got their teacher certification but never got a teaching job. My brother got his Ph.D. in astronomy at Berkeley, and although he did get a college teaching job, it is non-tenured and therefore he must re-apply every 3 years, a constant source of stress and anxiety that I think is ruining his health.

Bryan Townsend said...

Oh, you bet! The same applies to most careers in academia.