Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Toughest Question, Part 3

It’s been awhile since I’ve had a chance to post! My apologies....

In the first part of this series, we look
ed at things that might keep us from asking ourselves the following very challenging question:

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

In the second part, we moved on to considering how and from whom we might collect information that could help us answer this question.

So.... it’s decision time! How do we get a grip on this question and start coming up with an answer?

Let’s start with the logic part. Here are some parts of this question that actually have an empirical element - that is, they actually relate to things that we can verify in the real world.

Talent: OK, this is of course partly subjective - there are many parts of musical talent out there and no two people agree exactly on what they are! That said, some aspects of musical talent are not so subjective. If you are consistently told that you play well in tune and have a good ear, that is a big plus for your musical future. If you make relatively few mistakes when sightreading (a skill that researchers increasingly think isn’t all that teachable), that’s another plus in your column. If you can consistently count and play in rhythm, another plus! Please don’t think we’re talking about perfection in any of these areas - no person on Earth is perfect at any of these skills. But people who are still struggling with the basics in these areas, especially by the time they are applying to music school, need to take a hard look at why that is and what that may mean for their future.

Money: This is the toughest part of this decision for me to write about, because it’s inherently unfair (since talent and money aren’t always distributed in equal amounts to everyone!). But it would be unfair to ignore it or pretend that it wasn’t a real factor. Being a musician is expensive. Taking private lessons is expensive. Getting a reasonably good bass or bow is expensive. Going to college is expensive, even if you manage to get a big scholarship. Going to a great summer music festival instead of working at CVS over the Summer is expensive. Flying around the country to auditions with your bass is expensive! While none of these things on their own have to be an obstacle to your musical career, it’s smart to consider what your financial options are, even before you go to music school. Especially in the performance area, you should not assume that you will be making much money in the years immediately following your graduation from school. I have seen bass students go to college with no realistic plans in place for how they will pay for their future instruments or for further training, with frustrating and often embittering results later when they can’t make ends meet. This doesn’t mean that you have to be rich to be a musician (although it doesn’t hurt), but it does mean that you shouldn’t be a Pollyanna about how you will manage your money.

Academic Skills: “Wait!”, you say. “Isn’t the whole point of going to music school that I won’t have to take all those academic classes?” Well, yes, to a point. But the reality is that you do indeed have to take academic classes to get a bachelors’ degree, even at the most elite conservatory. And even if you don’t much care for those classes, you still have to pass them - and you certainly don’t want them causing you unnecessary stress or distracting you from your performance work. And of course, you may be attending a university for your musical studies, where your academic load will be more challenging. Plus, many of the skills that help you do well in academics - organization, quickly ingesting new data - are a huge help in some aspects of music. Besides, no matter how many musicians say otherwise, I feel strongly that having good knowledge of things like theory and music history are actually pretty helpful in building and hanging on to a good performance career. Not to mention being able to do things like write a good grant proposal for your chamber group....

Now, on to the less logical part. These two questions depend on your view of yourself and your personality, as well as how other people see you:

Organization/Problem-Solving: Musicians have to be problem-solvers, always trying to find answers to further improve their skills as a player. Unlike some academic classes, where often merely memorizing and recycling information given to you by a teacher is enough to do fairly well, a musician has to be able to figure out how to use their own body and brain to accomplish very tricky and complex tasks. If you are a more passive learner, this can be make growth and success as a musician more difficult.

Musicality: Are you a “musical person?” This question is meant to cover the non-empirical side of music-making - that quality that shines through in a good performer even if their chops aren’t in the best of shape. Do people like to hear you play? Do people seem to have a (hopefully positive!) emotional reaction to your playing? We need to rely on others’ views of our playing in this area to get a sense of our own innate musicality, but also to remember that this is a very hard thing to get a solid answer on.

And finally, we tackle the big one:

Passion and Drive: It’s certainly one of the most-repeated cliches in the business, but it’s true: perseverance is the #1 trait that I see in successful music students who move on to be happy in their careers. This perseverance can be seen in various areas:

- a passion to have a certain musical career (“I always wanted to play viola in a string quartet more than anything”);
- a passion to perform at the highest professional level (“I’m gonna solo with the New York Phil someday!”)
- a passion to finish what you start (“I’m gonna figure out this bowstroke if it kills me!”)
- a passion to play a certain type of music (“without bebop in my life every day I can’t function.”)
- a passion to play your instrument as much as you can (If I don’t practice 4 hours a day I get grumpy!”)
- a passion that expresses itself competitively (“I wanna be the best player in my school.”)
- a passion for always exploring and improving your playing (“I found four new fingerings for my concerto today.”)

Not everyone will have all of these passions - if you did I think you’d be a pretty unpleasant person to be around. However, most successful musicians have a very deep need on some level that drives them on to constantly work towards their musical goals, especially when that means making personal sacrifices in other areas of their lives. You’ve gotta want it bad!

So: look at all these areas. Do you feel like you’ve got ‘em all covered? If you see some areas where there are struggles, do you feel like you can make a plan to improve in or overcome whatever issues or problems you face? Going into music as a profession is a bold and somewhat foolhardy act, even under the best of circumstances, and no one goes into it with any sort of guarantees of success and an easy cruise to full employment and musical satisfaction. But taking some time to think through your own skills, strengths, and weaknesses can help you figure out if making that leap is the right choice for you.