Recently one of my beloved students was grappling with finding his place in the competitive music field. He spoke of feeling “not good enough” to excel. Fortunately, he is an idealist, in search of finding a meaningful way to contribute to society. I have no doubt that he will figure this out and make a profound difference through his wholehearted pursuit of living a life that connects with others.
With my own recent health crisis, I reflected upon choices that I’ve made, re-evaluating how I spend my time and if my life has “meaning.” Happily, in my case, there’s not much I would change. I am immensely grateful for the career that I have chosen, the students and colleagues that I have the privilege to make music with, and how music has helped me to embrace my humanity and accept others. I love what I do. And, perhaps more importantly, I recognize what a gift that is.
While I’ve always loved practicing, teaching, and studying music, I have not always felt worthy of doing so. The music field is indeed competitive and challenging at every stage. To enter music school requires about 10 years of study (no other discipline requires this type of prior experience!). For admittance, everyone has to audition, proving that you can handle the demands of this emphemeral artform. Obviously, you are competing for a place against many other talented individuals, not only for acceptance into the school, but also for scholarships and assistantships. Most music schools have routine juries, recitals and other auditions, with students constantly being evaluated and “rated.” Those who pursue academic careers will have to audition for jobs, once again competing with hundreds of applicants who are also eager to prove themselves.
Although many fields and professions entail interviews and high performances on tests, the performing arts require that you present your work on the spot, at a given day and hour. To make matters more complicated, pianists are expected to perform from memory, adding to the anxiety and pressure that many performers feel. This constant quest to be “exceptional” can get in the way of finding one’s true calling.
I vividly remember my statement of purpose for my undergraduate application. I wanted to be “an internationally recognized concert pianist.” Now I find that incredibly amusing: 1) I have never wanted to tour constantly, living in a hotel, enduring the endless pressure of performing night after night, 2) I probably would have had a better chance of becoming an astronaut (I have no aptitude for science), 3) This objective really didn’t match my heart’s desire. It simply didn’t match my ability, personality, or my passions.
And yet, I encounter student after student who continually measures herself by this gold standard. If I’m not good enough to win an international competition, then I shouldn’t be in music. If I can’t perform 15 concerti, then I’m unworthy of pursuing a career in music. If I’m not the best student in my class, then I should find a different career. While I am by no means discounting the tremendous energy and effort required in becoming a professional musician (it is mind-boggling how many hours it takes to learn a Beethoven piano sonata), I do think that we are asking the wrong questions. Do I love making music? Do I enjoy sharing music with others through performance, teaching and in other ways? Am I able to pursue an alternative job or would I miss devoting most of my time to a music-focused career?Answering these questions truthfully, without judgment is the key.
In the 21st-century, there are limitless possibilities for the creative and entrepreneurially-minded musician. Today’s artist is not bound by antiquated notions of what it means to be a musician. Don’t let anyone tell you that there is no place for you if your heart is in it. Follow your bliss and discover who you really are. How do your passions, abilities and calling intersect? How can you make an impact that aligns with your values and priorities? What do you need to do to make that happen?