Tuesday, March 19, 2013

It's Your Career!

I see that the folks at The Practicing Musician linked to my post on talking to the audience. Thanks, that's much appreciated. So let me do another one on those practical issues that come up with regard to career development.

I pursued a career as a classical soloist for nearly thirty years and, while I can't say I was as successful as I had hoped, I did learn a few things. One important lesson is to be objective about yourself. This is incredibly hard to do! For one thing, one's identity as a musician is bound up with one's identity as a person and it is so hard to see oneself from another perspective. My problem, for example, was that I tended to worry excessively about my technical competence as a "guitar virtuoso". What I needed to do was accept my limitations, realize my strengths and choose repertoire that enabled me to take advantage of my strengths and please audiences. That "pleasing audiences" thing is really important! Instead, I did too much virtuoso repertoire that tended to reveal my limitations and not my strengths. I got into this because I kept thinking I was in my developing stage too long. Long after what sort of guitarist I was became clear, I still kept doing pieces to develop my virtuosity.

Let me explain a bit. Since I started late, I had to work hard to become competent at technique. But I did the work and mastered what you need to to be a concert guitarist. Evidence of this was that I had several engagements to play the Concierto de Aranjuez by Rodrigo and the Guitar Concerto by Villa-Lobos with orchestra. You can't do those pieces unless you have the chops. But loud fast scales are not really my strength. What is, is tone color, dynamics, phrasing and counterpoint. This is stuff I am particularly good at. Musical stuff, not technical stuff. So what I should have done is chosen, from the repertoire that audiences really want to hear, those pieces where I can really shine. Perhaps this might be a good example:

Or this, a more standard piece of repertoire:

Now of course, each musician has to figure this out for themselves and it will be different from every other musician. You are unique! Don't try to copy someone else's technique, or musicianship or career. You have to present yourself as yourself. That's what audiences want: they want to connect with you as an individual human being on the personal level. They want your personal performance of the music, your individual perspective. I know that career consultants talk about this as "branding", but that seems to strike the wrong note for me. You are not a corporation, you are a human being! If you want to be authentically yourself, then thinking in terms of branding might not be the way to go.

Record yourself. Listen to yourself. And figure out what sort of musician you are. Then look at what audiences seem to like and put it all together. You might end up with something like this:


Bradford said...

Hey, Bradford from The Practicing Musician and my other blog on classical guitar: this is classical guitar

I've known your name for some time because I teach at the Victoria Conservatory of Music where I believe you used to be based long ago.

Thanks for another great post.

Bryan Townsend said...

Hi Bradford,

Yes, I spent a number of happy years at the conservatory and the university in Victoria.

Thanks for the compliment!

How many guitar students are at the Conservatory these days?

Bradford said...

People still speak well of you around here! There are four classical teachers and a few steel-string. I've got about 25 students but exactly sure about the others.

Anyway, I'm following your blog on rss so will look forward to future posts.

All the best,

Maury said...

The first and third samples were very compelling. The second was competent and professional without being highly memorable. While not a particular fan of the Tarrega warbling style you did it much more artistically than any other performance I have heard.

As for musical careers, I really feel for musicians, particularly in the current environment given my avid interest in music. But I am pessimistic about the career viability of merely score reading musicians apart from the few who will win at musical chairs at one of the shrinking orchestras or college programs. I think musicians to be at all viable will have to show some capacity at light improvisation and some ability to write personal compositions that they can concertize with as a competitive advantage. Your other article on the woman composer writing compositions for her own ensemble are part of that direction. The rest are not going to be able to support themselves solely in music even with teaching IMO.

This is not so different from pre 19th C norms where both musicians and singers were expected to embellish and vary the performance of the bare score. Unfortunately the current training is opposed to any variance from the sacred score.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks for the kind comments, Maury. The standard path to career success still seems viable, at least in Europe. And there are certainly some who have blazed new paths involving, as you say, improvising and composition. I think the music world is still in flux, though and it is far from clear how to pursue a career these days.