I’ve started to internalize some of the wisdom that has been around for, well, eternity: Do things that make you happy. Screw the economy and the burden of expectations. Things are not the same now, and they will continue to shift and change like dunes in the wind. We were born in the wind and yet wring our hands when it blows from some other direction!
This reflection, in combination with the continued trust parents flatter me with in guiding their children towards music school, has led me to consider what aspects of the past two decades might benefit from a do-over. (A dune over?) With this in mind, I thought I would offer a few pieces of advice for players who are about to go off to conservatory or university.
Riding the Dunes, a.k.a. Things I Would Have Done differently:
1. I would have taken my injuries more seriously, earlier.
I had no business starting music school with a ticking time bomb in my arm. It held me back in more ways that I can fathom. I was extraordinarily lucky to have a department chair who finagled a shortened senior recital and allowed me to audit a semester of orchestra while I prayed for some miraculous therapy to work. I should have gone into debt to seek top-notch medical care instead of settling for doctors who saw me as an injured hobbyist who just overdid things.
If you’re hurt or hurting, sort it out. Fix your technique, max your medical coverage, take care of your body. I will never have complete sensation in either arm again, and my colleagues in Los Angeles will always remember me as the one who can’t play anything longer than a 4 hour session. They will also remember me as the one who got them backstage at amazing rock shows and hired them for all kinds of tv and album work, so it’s not all bad. But you get my point.
2. I would have double majored.
This is not about plan B. I hate that: “make sure you can get a real job” is such an insult. I know how hard you’re working and how much the next 4 years are going to beat your ass into submission. That said, music is a broad field- much broader than just performance or teaching or composition. Incorporate another skill like journalism, public policy, marketing, anthropology, computer science, education, social work…and what you get are areas that all have jobs that allow you to be a musician but also rigorous training that makes you more employable than someone with just one of those degrees. You can work for a music non-profit, or get in on the ground floor of a video game company. You can be a clinical arts therapist or radio producer. All real jobs, all completely swimming in music. Many of them are work from home or contractual, so you can keep up your performance or teaching or writing as well. It’s a patchwork life, but that doesn’t mean you have to do something you hate.
which brings me to
3. Do what you love.
All worthwhile work ends up being hard. If you’re going to bust your hump, love it. If the atheists are right, then this is it, friends. If the theists are right, I still think God would like us to be happy and productive. This does not mean there is no settling in to do. Take a few weeks to suss things out. Everything that happens is just information. If people don’t respect you, there is a chance you’re a jackass. There is a bigger chance that it’s a narrative about the person. Give yourself permission to try new things and become a better person.
which brings me to
4. I would have apologized less.
Since I wear my heart on my sleeve, there are certain feeble sharky types that enjoy squeezing it as often as they can. Every industry has sharks, but music (and showbiz especially) rewards them unduly for these tendencies. My first instinct after being kicked around was actually to apologize. Instead of coming off as gracious, I was seen as weak. What I thought was diplomacy was tactical error. Be respectful, but realize that you are inferior to nobody. Your craft might need work, you may have lessons to learn, but as an individual, do your best to ride over and through the rapids instead of hoping for them to calm down. Some people are so self-destructive that they can’t help but hurt others. Some of the most successful people are the worst this way. I’ve been attacked by Oscar-winning directors because something about me bothered them. I had a producer’s wife scream at me because I expected to be paid as per the contract’s indication. I was fired more than once because I did a good job and it got the attention of someone higher up in the organization. Part of the reason these things happened is that I was more than deferential: I was apologetic.
Oh, would I love to name names at this point.
But I won’t.
5. Work harder than you thought possible.
There were times when I quit practicing because I wanted to stop being confronted by the things I wasn’t good at. I would perform in my room instead of clinic the hard parts. There were assignments I punted on because I was too tired or wanted to go see a show. There were auditions I blew because I was not prepared. There were classes I gave up on because I did not take the time to understand.
Have the audacity to be great, and don’t worry if you’re recognized for it all the time.
That’s what I’m learning. This blog got hot just as blogging was exploding and I had the time and liberty to write a lot. I got used to the reassurance of page views and effusive comments that I was doing something of value, something that mattered to other people. It’s a nice feeling, but it’s not one that you can count on when you’re trying to string a series of happy years together. Greatness is not made greater by a spotlight or by money. Do great things and don’t apologize for them.
Do great things, and I’ll see you on the dunes.