The music world is more than a little bit competitive. It takes a minimum of a requisite amount of talent coupled with thousands of hours of hard work to achieve a level of mastery over one’s instrument(s) to even have a chance of any measurable success in the field. Even when one does reach a high enough artistic level to be considered among the best, success — whatever that might mean — isn’t guaranteed. So what makes the difference?
I came of age at a time in NYC when the lucrative live recording work was said to be drying up (film dates, jingles, rock/pop, etc.), the size of Broadway orchestras started shrinking (due to a combination of producers with millions of dollars on the line pinching pennies and the musical aesthetic turning toward rock and pop) and many part-time orchestras, opera companies and chamber groups began to really struggle financially. Those were sort of the doomsday buzz topics of the late 1990s and early 2000s just like how “classical music is dying” or “dead” is the doomsday buzz topic of today — the difference being, however, that the former statements could be backed up by data, whereas the latter is usually opinion designed to generate controversy and clicks. But I digress! My point is that when I was going through Juilliard and beginning to figure out how to make this music thing work, the environment wasn’t exactly a cornucopia of opportunity in the same way that it was for some of my predecessors. To realistically embrace any hope of success (or even just survival, for that matter!) for my own self meant that I really had to look around and ask: Why is it that certain musicians are always working, while others who have similar artistic training, ability and integrity are not?
A whole lifetime could be spent investigating this — empirically, scientifically or otherwise — and I’m sure several volumes could be written on the subject. One might argue that there are a multitude of extra-musical factors at work: Where someone went to school and connections that resulted; Who someone studied with and the opportunities with which they might have been presented; Financial resources or lack thereof; Maybe even just plain luck, i. e. being in the right place at the right time. Sure, these things open doors for certain individuals here and there, but those things are not what really makes them succeed over the long term. What makes a person succeed over the long term is strong artistic ability coupled with a keen sense of professionalism.
In my multipart series, On Professionalism, I will discuss all the things that don't necessarily have to do with playing percussion, but have everything to do with how to be a percussionist who people want to hire, with whom they want to work and with whom they want to play music. Stay tuned for Part 1!