Friday, July 31, 2015

What It Takes

As the summer days quickly pass away, I’m beginning to accept the inevitability that a new academic year will soon arrive. It won’t be long before I find myself standing in a classroom filled with young composers trying to help them master their craft, find their respective artistic voices and establish meaningful careers. In gathering my thoughts on how to once again approach these topics, there are two events that provide me some direction.

The first event was a conversation I had with a graduating composition student this past spring. For a final lesson, this student simply wanted to spend some time over coffee talking about what comes next. The conversation began with a simple question: “How do you know if you are successful?”

The second event was actually a series of short trips. This summer, my wife, daughter and I made several college visitations. My daughter, a rising high school senior, is interested in pursuing a career in Musical Theater. This desire is at least as daunting as my own desire was at her age to become a composer – perhaps more so. I can certainly relate to being strongly drawn to an artistic field that is ruthlessly competitive and offers little in the way of financial security. The administrators of the various musical theater programs we visited all spoke about the admission requirements and, more importantly, how their respective degrees would aid our young performer in getting on Broadway. Listening to these administrators, I couldn’t help but notice that many of the basic points in their respective conversations were very similar to the response I gave to my graduating composition student. The necessary tools for achieving success, it seems, may be the same irrespective of discipline. 

After thinking a bit more about the similarities between my conversation with a student and an administrator’s conversation with my daughter, I believe there are four major components to a successful professional career:

1. Talent

Whatever talent I may have is made to look better by
surrounding myself with super talented folks like
DJ/Composer Jennifer Mitchell (L) and Conductor
Georgia Ekonomou (C) - Photo taken after the premiere of my
commissioned work, "Eyes Wide Open" - April 27, 2015
Whether it is a composer holding a fistful of commissions or a Broadway actor holding an Equity Card and a contract for a long-running show, talent is the first and primary component for anyone who wants to be successful in the Arts. Sadly, this is the one component that no one can simply acquire via education and hard work. One is either born with the necessary creative aptitude or one is not. I love baseball, but no amount of wishing or training would have ever allowed me to throw a 95 mile-an-hour fastball. Possessing innate talent, however, certainly does not guarantee success. It is simply the prerequisite that allows one in the door. It’s not even enough to have the talent and the desire to develop one’s gifts.

2. “I can’t not do this.”

Recent performance of my "Long
Journey Home" given by the Lake
Superior Chamber Orchestra. 
I believe that a successful artist must be absolutely compelled to engage in their discipline. When I was a senior in high school, I was briefly torn between pursuing a degree in music composition and another field outside of music altogether. As I contemplated entering the non-musical field, I found my mind constantly devising ways that I would still be able to compose. It soon became apparent to me that I was going to find a way to write music no matter what the “day job” might be. For me, composing music is not just an enjoyable activity; it is as necessary as food and drink. It’s irrelevant whether I enjoy or desire certain foods. I am absolutely compelled to nourish my body or perish. While it may sound a bit dramatic, the creative drive approaches that level of importance for a successful professional artist.

Often, students receive the advice to “do what you love.” This is not entirely accurate. There are many times that I agonize over a piece of music I am writing. In those times, I can promise that am not experiencing joy or doing “what I love.” In fact, sometimes, I actually hate the drudgery of the process. However, I simply cannot not compose. This is different than “wanting” to compose. Despite creative agony, societal indifference to my endeavors and low pay, I nevertheless continue to write music anyway. There are joyful payoffs to be sure. However, my engagement in the field runs far deeper than simply “doing what I love.” I have always been driven to hone any talent I was given at birth and develop it to its full potential. This drive gives me the strength to make the considerable sacrifices necessary for a successful professional career.

3. Thick Skin

For every great opportunity like this, there
are many rejection letters!
Many people think that being an artist means one is “sensitive.” This may be true when discussing a person’s relationship to the natural world, the world of ideas or the creative process. However, artists cannot harbor for long any sensitivity about their personal successes or failures with respect to their work. I’ve written about rejection before in this blog. It’s never easy, of course, to get the word that your work has been passed over. However, it is a fact that there are far more failures than successes in the careers of most artists. This is certainly true for an endeavor as esoteric as contemporary classical music composition. Most professional composers do not receive major commissions, grants, prizes, recordings and stellar professional performances of their music on a regular basis.  Often, it seems that success is only an occasional visitor making brief appearances in the life of the composer while rejection is a constant and unwanted companion. So how does one push onward in the face of seemingly constant disappointment? In addition to the drive to create (described above) I believe it’s important to also perform a bit of a personal and honest artistic inventory:
  • Do I truly have the talent?
  • Sure, my family and close friends may think I’m the next Beethoven but what outside objective validation from a broad group of professionals in my field (teachers, performers, music critics, presenters, conductors, etc.) attests that I do, indeed, possess the basic tools?
  • What is my level of commitment?
  • Do I view my art as a hobby or side interest?
  • Do I have a job outside of my creative pursuit that prohibits my constant and uninterrupted pursuit of artistic expression?
  • What am I prepared to sacrifice for my art?

Honest answers to these questions will help determine an artist’s level of commitment. This honest inventory will also lead naturally to either the formation of a thick skin or to a realization that a professional career in the arts is not one’s true path in life. Rejection may always hurt, but that is just one of the many sacrifices an artist makes. Peer review of work can be a subjective process but it never hurts to also acknowledge that there is always someone more talented out there. A better response to rejection should be, “What am I prepared to do now?” I also find it helpful to remember a famous quote attributed to Theodore Roosevelt: “Comparison is the thief of joy.”

4. There is No Plan B

Even if one has the necessary talent, the relentless drive to create and a thick skin there is one last component that most successful professional artists must have: no Plan B. One of the consistent takeaways my daughter heard in her college visitations was that to be successful in the audition process, a person must be all the way in. There is no dipping in a toe or easing slowly into the water. There is no hedging of bets and keeping several disparate irons in the fire – just in case. A successful artist never had a Plan B because it simply never occurred to them that they would not be successful.

The wonderfully talented students of the  Paideia Chamber
Orchestra rehearsing
 for the premiere of my piece,
"Eyes Wide Open" this past April.
In presenting these four components to success, I stress that I am speaking of what I believe it takes to be successful in a professional career. I’m speaking to those who forsake a “regular” life in favor of pursuing their art exclusively as their primary vocation. I do not mean to suggest that only professionals should engage in art or that the Arts should only be taught in rarified Ivory Towers for the Gifted. Quite the contrary! I believe many people are born with various artistic talents and gifts. They use these gifts as an integral part of their non-artistic vocations or contribute to the general health of artistic expression in various non-professional or semi-professional settings within their respective communities. They may just simply love and support the Arts. For these reasons, and for the general health of a civilized society, I believe a vibrant Arts education is essential for everyone. But that’s a topic for another blog post.

A tangible measure of success - Athanasios Zervos performs
my "Tonoi X" for solo soprano sax at the  17th World Saxophone
Congress – Strasbourg, France • July 10, 2015
What separates successful professional artists are the levels of commitment and sacrifice they are willing – no, compelled – to give to their art. Such commitment will usually result in some tangible measurement of success. Ultimately, there is also another way that I think any artist can be reasonably sure of true success: there must constantly be an acceptable dissatisfaction with one’s career. Acceptable dissatisfaction never falls into self-pity, envy or jealousy. For the composer, being acceptably dissatisfied with a career simply is the grateful recognition of past successes (no matter how meager) and a belief that the next piece will be better; that the next composition will somehow do a better job of articulating a personal artistic voice.

Despite what a trophy case may or may not reveal, I believe that true success is the result of talent, hard work, a thick skin and a single-minded devotion to the creation of art. Given this foundation, how did I answer my graduating student when I was asked, “How do you know if you are successful?”

I am successful so long as I remain grateful for my gifts, confident in my abilities, diligent in my work ethic, unconcerned with comparing myself to others and realize that there is always much to learn and more room to grow. The rest always takes care of itself.