Keep Going

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I had an interesting discussion with a group of students recently. The basic topic of discussion was this: “How long do you wait to ‘make it in the field’ before throwing in the towel? And similarly, how do you know when you’ve made it?”

To answer the question I relayed a true conversation I had with TV and film composer Mike Post in 1985 at a summer festival. When asked essentially the same question, he replied: “If it means that much to you, you must work hard, make contacts. and wait long as it takes. If you need to eat peanut butter sandwiches for years, you must do so if working in this field means that much to you.”
Sage advice. (I ate a lot of PBJ back in the day, BTW).
Another wise tidbit comes from the great cellist Janos Starker, who I had the privilege to hear speak in 2000: “Remember, there are many needs for musicians and teachers in every place in America. Do not delude yourself into thinking that you only are a success in this field if you work in New York, Boston, or Chicago.”
More sage advice. (I’ve worked in many places, none of which are the fabled places of success).
In truth, the students were shocked to learn that I’ve been rejected for most job applications I’ve submitted, (probably over a hundred, actually). Yet I’m still happily engaged in a career in the arts. In my relatively recent side-pursuit of writing, I’ve received more rejections than acceptances by a 3:1 margin. Yet I’ve still had a small number or works published, with increasing frequency. (If not in major literary journals, or “apex publications,”  at least they HAVE been published).

The importance of what we do is in the doing of it, or as the great writer Ursula Le Guin writes:

“Practice is an interesting word. We think of practicing as beginner’s stuff, playing scales, basic exercises. But the practice of an art is the doing of that art—it is the art.” – Ursula K. LeGuin

What we should learn from all our practice is that it is not about “perfection,” as the saying goes, but about perseverance. We must continue to do what we do, and we will likely learn and grow as much, if not more, from our mistakes, rejections, and less-than-perfect performances.

So, the lesson I’ve imparted, and learned myself, is basically this:

Keep Going.
If you build it, they will come…eventually
And,
We are all on a unique path that follows its own timeline. Don’t compare yourself to others.
Keep Going.
Hit the scores, practice the technique, dig deeper into your soul than ever before. Do your art every day you possibly can.
Network without the expectation of immediate return, say YES to opportunities; say NO to being used.
Keep Going

P.S. I also told the student who said he needed to make $200K per year right out of college in order to support his family that a career in the arts may not be the best choice for him, if that was truly his priority. Sorry, there are also deal breakers.

 

Copyright 2018, Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat

Image source: https://weheartit.com/entry/231170553

 

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It’s Time We Retire the Label, “Semi-Professional”

semi-professional*:

adjective

  • Receiving payment for an activity but not relying entirely on it for a living.

‘a semi-professional musician’

noun

  • A person who is engaged in an activity on a semi-professional basis.

‘My parents were lay musicians, but Dad was more of a semi-professional.’

 

*Note, the above definitions, from the Oxford Dictionary, do not mention anything regarding quality, worthiness, or merit of said activities

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I make my living from a combination of university teaching, conducting part-time ensembles, and occasionally performing on viola. As a conductor of several types of ensembles, and a teaching and performing musician as well, I consider all of my activity to be “professional-based.” Yet the music industry often does not always agree, as it assigns arbitrary value based on perceived prestige of any activity. What is often deemed important is often no more than a matter of who you know, where you studied, and being in the right place at the right time. There is also the plain fact that once you get a break and do something with it, then you are on your way. (That last one is a good thing if you can maintain it).

Not so fast, you say. This sounds a bit like sour grapes. I assure you it is not. I am quite comfortable in my life and consider myself as maintaining and continuing to build a successful career. But time and again, I hear things, read reviews and see evidence that the industry often discriminates, not on artistic grounds, but on other dubious criteria. The topic du jour, then, is artistic merit based on factors that the artist has little control over; namely what is and is not considered to be a “top-tier” experience; as case-in-point, a simple word-designation: the dreaded “semi-professional label.”

In my opinion, it is high time the musical-world eliminate the practice of labeling an activity as “semi-professional.” This is particularly true as it’s assigned, whether deliberately of by inference, as a signifier of worthiness or quality. Simply put, “semi-professional” is not considered to be as worthy as “fully-professional.”

But I’ll counter that if one is paid, it is professional activity. Period. If one continues to receive pay engaged in such activity, whether from one organization or by cobbling together various opportunities, it is still professional work, and is part of one’s “professional profile.” Whether intended or not, no penalty should be assigned due to location, budget size, number of concerts/recordings of a group or individual, or perceived prestige of an organization. Work in the field is work. Work builds into more work, and if it is good, it will be sustainable. I am only one example among thousands that this is true in the arts.

Here are some interesting facts:

  • Most paid orchestras in the U.S. are classified as semi-professional, by a huge margin. There are only 18 or so that are considered “full-time.” There are hundreds more ensembles that pay their musicians, a little or a lot, to play
  • The “part-time” organizations often employ a full-time music director and part-time ensemble players. That is a budgetary reality, and a proven organizational leadership model. It says nothing, however, as to the quality of the artistic leadership, musical product, and certainly not to the worthiness of the endeavor.
  • There are many, many more opportunities at those “part-time” levels for music-making. Do the math.
  • The music industry does not generally value these second or third tier endeavors, instead assigning only the top-tier experience as artistically valid. Doing so actually limits opportunities and creates ever-contracting circles of work.
  • All “tiers” are arbitrary. The industry considers them, but as individuals we may also place ourselves in boxes of our own design. The key is in seeing both realities.
  • The so-called “top tier” of the music biz is certainly populated with talent; but also is bloated with too many fish and way too many cooks—Alpha-types bent on controlling who gets opportunities. This is most often couched as an artistic decision, but is more often based on favors, the who-you-know buddy system, and, occasionally, box office concerns. It’s not always intentional, but blinders are worn by many in the profession. Institutional blinders and individual blinders both exist.
  • Despite the industry preferences, an appearance with a top-tier organization does not guarantee quality.
  • More importantly, a lack of top tier work does not indicate lesser quality in other musical ventures.

Some of the finest musicians I know cobble together a career consisting of various opportunities: performing in several orchestras, multiple teaching positions, freelance work, composing, writing reviews and articles, etc. I know musicians in practically every state in the U.S. and also in countries in both Europe and Asia. Most of them are engaged in professional work, regardless of their employment status with any particular organization. All of them are committed, engaged musicians. They work in the field. All work is professional work.

I’ll likely not change the English language, nor the opinion and practices of the music industry. But I will contend that all musical activity is professional, especially when the musician is paid. Anything less would be semi-genuine.

 

Copyright, July 5, 2018. Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat.

Definition source:

https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/semi-professional