Success, Fame, & Music

IMG_1402One phrase I absolutely hate to hear from people when it comes to me is “You’re going to be famous!” It may surprise you to know that I have no aspirations for fame and my definition of success is really just being able to sustain a life whereby and can travel doing piano concerts in addition to having my works performed by various ensembles and individuals. For me success is being able to have the time and resources to study music purely for wanting to gain a deeper understanding of it’s nature and being.

We live in a culture of success based on the Ivy League mentality whereby, “the best and the brightest” and “the richest” are seen as pillars of success. At the same time we live in a culture propagated by MTV and E!, which defines success as how skinny, rich, or shocking you can be to gain “fame” or attention. Take a poll of most children today and they will tell you they want to be famous and they want to be on TV. Meanwhile much of America is still dreaming of fulfilling the Disney ideal, finding their “perfect match” settling down and forming the perfect nuclear family… a modern Norman Rockwell…

In reality success is really just another name for happiness or in my book contentment. It is a condition whereby we have come to the top of some ideological mountain in our lives but this in itself is wrought with erroneous thought. Our whole lives are a journey, a trek up a mountain, which is ever changing, rarely constant. So to view success as some plateau ultimately leads to complacency, stagnation and finally decline. Success looks different to many people. Success as an artist either performing or visual is a hard thing for most people to wrap their head around because in most cases it is drastically different from the success ideal of the average person. Furthermore, the very nature of the artistic “job” is a foreign idea. Just the other day, I was on my way to practice at a concert venue. I stopped at CVS to get a drink and the clerk asked me if I was on my way to work. I hesitated for a second, not quite knowing what to say. Finally, I told him I suppose I was going to work if piano practice counted as work.

Fame and traditional capital-based success are not mutually synonymous to music and to the artist should be of no import. Fixations with fame and success are the mold, which decays the heart and soul of the artist. When one creates art one must do so with a clear and present conscience for this is what elevates the symphony from last week’s rap song and the latest boy band fad.

Fame is empty. Spiritual wholeness and contentment does not come from fame because at the end of the day being loved by a flock of people means absolutely nothing if you can’t love yourself and be at peace in a simple life. Yet we are so often taught that we need people and things to fill some sort of hole and longing innate to the human condition. The social engineering begins from an early age… just look at the stories we tell children… they build up unrealistic views of life and social mores. It creates a world of people who want more of everything… especially attention.

Being a performer, composer, and teacher has taught me to accept the things in life I cannot change as well as how to be a problem solver who can change that which is in my power. For example, I know many other teachers who get very frustrated when a child consistently comes to their lesson without practicing. My view is I can engage the child as much as I can in a lesson but if the child and/or the parents are unwilling to put in an effort for that child to practice a minimum of twenty minutes a day there is no point wasting energy or getting myself worked up. It is an issue beyond my control. Likewise when a performer or ensemble premieres a work, which I have composed I am not responsible for the mistakes they make in the performance, furthermore, a lack luster performance of one of my works does not mean that I am a bad composer, it generally means the performer or group needed to practice more. As a performer, I accept every day that no matter how hard I work there is no such thing as a perfect performance; this however is something I can personally work on. The great thing about music is that you can always get better at it and now matter how old you get there is some new score needing an interpretation and fresh life.

When one thinks of successful musicians they immediately start throwing around names such as Horowitz, Toscanini, Bernstein, Rubinstein, etc. and there is often talk of these people at “the peak of their success” but music as an art form does not have a success plateau. The greatest artisans of music are still working through “old age.” There’s a story about Horowitz who was asked in his later years if he still practiced his scales and Horowitz was said to reply something to the effect of “Why? Does it sound like I don’t?” Recently, I had the pleasure of meeting pianist Leonidas Lipovetsky while working as house manager for the piano concert series at St. Petersburg College. After his concert, which was awe-inspiring and motivating for me I observed as the audience flooded into the lobby to greet him. The crowd kept complimenting him on his energetic performance and Mr. Lipovetsky’s response was at once wise, simple, and a little funny in delivery… “Thank you! I practice.” Ellen Taafe Zwilich was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music, now in her 70’s Ms. Zwilich is still composing new works; her artistic success has not plateaued.

IMG_0984This is the lesson I continue to have reinforced every time I meet an accomplished pianist or composer: it’s not about the accolades; it is about the art of music. In fact most people would be pretty surprised to know that it is a rare thing to have a nice catered back stage experience, the pay in this line of work is minimal, and often your green room is a storage closet. You are constantly criticized by your teachers, your mentors, professional critics, and the toughest critic of all… yourself. It is rare to find any of these individuals who sugar coat their critique of your work. This is the reality of life as a musician and if you aren’t built to deal with these necessary unplesantries you are headed for a world of tears and depression. If you are doing this for success, for fame, for an extravagant lifestyle or the sex-drugs-and-rock-and-roll or even just for fun you are in for an even rockier road. You have to be in your art because you love it and beyond love there is a driving force, which can’t be defined in words that pushes you even when you think there is nothing left. You have to be okay with making sacrifices and you have to find new definitions for success. When you are practicing for hours a day and forgoing the regular 20-something social life you must embrace what I call little successes. When you have less you learn to embrace the little things in life. For me small successes are when I make a tasty dish from scratch and master a difficult passage in a piece I’m working on. Small success is when after days, weeks, months… I finish a composition either as a performer or a composer. Live your life embracing the small good in every day!

No talk of success can go without some mention of failure. The most important wisdom I can impart is that you can’t let the bad things or the good things go to your head. When you focus on the bad things in life, negative thoughts consume you. Any mind, but especially the creative mind, cannot function at optimum efficiency when clouded by negative thoughts. At the same time one cannot be to concerned with praise for this leads to a preoccupation with the ego and frequently results in behaviors of arrogance as well as feelings of entitlement. If one embraces the extremes of good and bad their life becomes a roller coaster, contentment and emotional stability is forever just out of reach. So we start trying to fill the need for balance with things – medications, food, clothes, tech gadgets, shoes, people… but what if one learned to live simply and contently.

So if we aren’t doing this for fame and financial success, why dedicate your life to music? The answer is not simply understood. There is an in escapable fire in all of us who create music that is both a blessing and a curse. This fire gives us an unwavering sense of purpose and solace yet it requires us to make sacrifices for our art. Music has to be more than fun it has to be a passion and to some degree an obsession. I already spoke of small successes but there are also the big successes that being the able to sustain a life as a musician. The ultimate success is to sustain a life as a musician with artistic freedom. But until the ultimate success there are the small successes… and sushi… and froyo… and cake… and curry… and flowers… and birds… and relative silence…

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