Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Toughest Question, Part 1

I’ve addressed a variety of topics here on PBDB, and almost all of them are based on conversations with bass students that I have had over the years. People ask me for advice on music school choices, technique questions, instrument purchases, teacher options, and almost any other question that could possibly seem relevant to a young bassist who is looking for ways to grow and improve as a musician. I certainly don’t always have the best or even a useful answer to their questions, but I try my best to be as helpful as I can based on my own experiences and knowledge.

However, there is one question that students very seldom ask me. This question is incredibly important, so much so that sometimes I choose to ask it of the students themselves. It’s no surprise that this question is often avoided by even the most inquisitive students. It’s a question that we all ask ourselves, but seldom do we feel sufficiently comfortable with anyone else to ask them:

Do I have what it takes to be a professional bass player?

I want to look at three aspects of this question:

- what keeps us from asking it in the first place,

- when and to whom we should and shouldn’t ask it,

- and how we can evaluate others’ responses to find the best and most complete answer.

The short answer to what keeps most of us from really asking this question is a four-letter word that starts with F - fear. If you’re even asking this question of yourself, you probably already want to be a professional musician on some level. Our society generally doesn’t steer lots of people into classical music or jazz careers. Even if you have a supportive family or teacher who are encouraging you in music, there are still lots of other societal pressures pushing almost all of us in the other direction! Asking ourselves this question means that we are acknowledging that there might be an answer other than “yes,” and no one likes to hear the word “no” when they truly want something. This is actually even more true when our own teachers and parents are telling us that we do have what it takes for a musical career. These people are usually people that we love and respect, and their opinions mean a lot to us. Asking ourselves these questions might also mean confronting the possibility that these revered authority figures might be wrong, or at least misinformed, about something important to us, and that can be a scary realization in and of itself.

This question is also hard to ask because it is fundamentally a question that asks people to tell us what they really think of us, and regardless of who we are and what our passions and interests are, that is a tough thing to do! It requires some trust and even intimacy with the person we are asking. If we feel that we are organized and mature people, and someone tells us that they think we aren’t, that can affect or even destroy our relationship with that person. For most of us, our feelings about music are deeper than our feelings about our skills at arithmetic or essay writing. Music is (among other things) about expressing ourselves and communicating our deepest feelings to others. Our self-image and our self-esteem can be intertwined with our feelings about our musical abilities, and finding out that others’ image of us isn’t the same as our own self-image can be a jarring and sometimes painful experience.

FInally, another reason that we hesitate to ask this question is that we are asking ourselves and others to predict the future with this question, and we all know that predicting the future is a highly inexact science at best. My best friend in college and I used to periodically play at predicting where each of us would be in twenty years’ time or so. We tended to get pretty ridiculous with our fortunetelling, often seeking to transplant one or the other into some bizarre, exotic location or weird relationship. I speak for both of us when I say that our lives and musical careers have both turned out in ways totally different than either our “realistic” predictions or our bizarre fantasies! No one who heard me play bass when I was 17 years old could ever have been accurate in judging the course of my musical life. However, many of the predictions that my private teacher and other musical authorities in my life at the time offered have largely come true. The collective wisdom of the people who truly knew me as a person and a musician was largely trustworthy, and I’m glad I listened to it and took it.

So, should we ask this question? Yes! If we want to have the courage to pursue a musical career, we need to have the courage to overcome all the obstacles that I’ve listed

above and collect the information that will help us make a good decision. Success in music requires us to “grow up” faster than a lot of our non-musician friends. High schools and colleges are designed to help and support students who are unsure of what they want to do with their lives. In fact, they are organized around the idea that you will use high school and college to begin to figure out what you want to do with your life. To decide to go into music as a career usually means that we need to make these sorts of decisions - and have these sorts of tough conversations - years before our society makes most young adults decide on a career path. It takes maturity and a realization that you’re on a slightly different path than everyone else to go into music. Looking at your suitability for this career in an honest way is essential.

In the next chapter, we’ll look at the next aspect of this topic: Whom we should ask this question, and what specific questions we need to ask to make sure we’re collecting good information that can help us sort out our choices.