October 8, 2008
I was having my teeth cleaned by the dental hygienist the other day when she offhandedly asked whether my children were also in the music industry. Fortunately, with my mouth wide open and filled with dental gear, I was only capable of answering with a few rather inarticulate and muffled noises. Otherwise, I might have given her a mouthful of my own. Music industry? How dare she equate what I do with such a mundane term! Am I not an artist? And do I not rub shoulders with the likes of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert, some of the giants of our civilization? Music industry, indeed!
But by the time I walked out of the dentist’s office, my teeth gleaming brilliantly in the morning sunlight, I had changed my mind. Of course I work in the music industry! You could call what I do by other names—profession, career, calling, work, job—but the incontrovertible fact is that I play the violin to feed myself and my family, pay the rent, and occasionally go to the movies. Granted, being a musician is an exalted profession, some might even think of it as a service profession akin to being a doctor or priest, but if I hadn’t been good enough to earn my daily bread from music, I might have only bumped into Mozart and his friends on weekends playing chamber music for fun.
Why did I get so hot under the collar over the hygienist’s innocent question? For one, because music’s noble qualities initially drew me into its world rather than the money I might earn from it. As a child, I eagerly told people that I was going to be a concert violinist when I grew up. “And how would that happen?” the grownups wanted to know. Easy. I would practice hard, develop my God-given talents, and when that glorious day of violin mastery finally arrived, all doors to concerts and acclaim would open enthusiastically and gratefully to me. It hardly crossed my mind to think about the nuts and bolts of the profession—how to practice efficiently, avoid injuries, look for a useful yet affordable instrument, and, not least, to know who the power brokers of the music business were and how to seek them out. Even when I entered the Curtis Institute of Music as an advanced violin student, my naive and romanticized view of the music world lingered on and the school itself did little to dispel these notions. Curtis stuck to doing what a school traditionally does well. It provided me with some of the best teachers in the world who did their job superbly. With each passing year, I improved as a violinist and gradually learned the musician’s craft, but Curtis offered hardly a word about how I might prepare for the outside world after graduation. Only as that date approached did I began to realize that the many fine young fiddlers in my position were all about to set foot in the same highly competitive environment. Ironically, fellow students who showed an innate flare for self-promotion or an awareness of the right people to know met with not-so-subtle criticism. “He’s a real operator,” we would say, or “She knows just exactly who to call and who to kiss up to,” as if making connections to the people in positions of importance was some kind of criminal offence. This prejudice ran contrary to a bald reality: Doors to a successful career might open reluctantly or perhaps not at all to any of us. I tossed and turned many a night in that last year of school thinking of my all-too-uncertain future.
Through talent, a certain amount of luck, and yes, hard work, I have managed to make my way in the music world, but I wish I had been better equipped when my music school diploma was handed to me. Now that I myself teach at the Curtis Institute of Music, I felt comfortable asking Robert Fitzpatrick, the school’s dean, if anything is being done to train young musicians for everything in the profession besides music itself. He referred me to Dan McDougall who gives a course entitled “The Twenty-First-Century Musician” at Curtis. Founded by Phyllis B. Susen, the course strives to build a working knowledge of demands made on musicians, resources available to them, and problem solving. With surprise and just a touch of envy, I learned that last Fall’s course offered fifteen sessions, each given by experts in a chosen subject. These included Basics of Personal Finance; Freelancing: It’s Not So Bad; Life of an Orchestral Musician: As a Player; Audition Taking Tips; The Media, Critics, and You; The Healthy Musician: A Work in Progress; Getting Work—And Making the Most of the Work You Get; and Grant Writing—Show Me The Money. If only this course had been offered to me as a student, my future would have been just as unsure and unpredictable but a tad less scary, armed as I would have been with solid information about the road ahead. I thought of two more course sessions for Professor McDougall to consider for his next syllabus: Performance Jitters–Friend or Foe? and Stage Comportment–Let Us See As Well As Hear the Real You.
I’m due for another teeth cleaning soon. Last time around, I told the hygienist in answer to her question that my daughter Natasha is a singer and my son Alexander is a web designer with many musician clients. But I can’t wait to see the hygienist again: I have so much more to tell her about the music industry.
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