What Do You Consider Success?

I visited the website, Extra Criticum. As it states on the homepage, “performing arts pros trade opinions, ideas, questions and obsessions.” The bloggers published here cover a wide range disciplines in the Arts, so it’s not just a music site. And I was interested in a posting by Rolando Teco, since he writes about “success.” I’m going to include Mr. Teco’s post later in this blog, but first here are some of my thoughts on the subject.

What Do You Consider Success?

This is an important question to ask yourself. In a perfect world in which your every dream was answered, and you were successful at everything you attempted, what would that look like for you? Would you be a soloist with major orchestras and perform around the world? Would you be a top singer at the Met or a famous jazz artist with your own group? Would you like to be a celebrity—someone like Paris Hilton, whose job is just being Paris Hilton? Does success to you mean being “famous” or “rich,” or are you more altruistic? Maybe you want to “make a difference,” and perhaps teach music to under-privileged children or set up a music school in your community. Is music even a consideration when you think of being successful in life? It could be that success to you is finding a partner, a soul-mate with whom you can spend your life. That could be your definition of ultimate success.

“Being successful” is probably different for all of us. If you equate success with “being famous,” and you are 45 years old, and don’t have management or any prospects of that, have never won a competition on your instrument, and have only been a soloist with community orchestras, are you a failure? If success to you means “being famous,” then the answer is probably yes. But what about the little wins along the way? I would argue that if you set yourself up “to be famous” or to have a principal position in a Big-5 orchestra, your chances of success are not very good. So what do you do if you never attain this lofty goal? Do you mope around and think of yourself as a loser? If you “fall back” (a term that I hate) on teaching, for example, are you settling for something less than the best? (People who fall back on anything rarely do as good a job as the person who is doing it as a first choice. There are too many excellent musicians out there who aren’t falling back on what they do and are totally into it.)

I like to think of success in smaller units. When I’m playing second clarinet, if I can make the first clarinetist feel good about what we are doing together, I’m successful. If I can give a good lesson to a student and have him leave my studio ready to dig deeper into what we talked about, I’m successful. If I can add some horn or string parts to a car commercial that lifts up the 30 second spot, I’m successful. These little successes build on themselves. Of course, you should have a dream—something that you aspire to achieve, but don’t forget to celebrate the little day-to-day successes.

Key Measures of Success

The ultimate measures of success are trial and repeat, and the buyer is the final judge. If a manufacturer of just about anything, from dishwashing detergent to automobiles, gets you to try their product, and you are satisfied and return to purchase again, that is success. Using a music example, let’s say you get a last minute call to sub on a woodwind quintet educational concert in a high school. That’s your trial. If it goes well you are a hero, even if your playing isn’t absolutely flawless. In a last minute situation the other player’s expectations are reduced, and they will cut you some slack. They’ll be happy to get through the gig without any major train wrecks! But even if you do a great job and impress the other four musicians they might not immediately call you back. There just might not be another opportunity for a while. That quintet already has a permanent member, and as long as he or she continues to do good work, it will remain his or her position. However, the chances are very good that they will recommend you to other groups, or at least relay the story of how you saved the day. Most of the time success can be measured by being asked back.

What interested me in Mr. Teco’s blog is that he is coming at the question of success from primarily a writer’s or filmaker’s perspective. And big-time success for films is “reaching the largest number of eyes.” In his post he’s struggling with his own definition of success—something we all do from time to time. Art vs. commerce—each person has his or her own individual take. For me, if those two things are in balance you have success. If you are still reading this, continue on to Rolando’s blog. If we, as musicians, think we have it rough, check out his world.

He posted it on February 5, 2010. Here it is, or go to the site.

Rolando Teco

Art vs. Commerce: Two world views collide within 12 hours of each other

Last night, we had our first Brevity Fest, at which about a dozen writers and musicians shared new work for an audience of roughly 75, who filled a cozy venue called El Cid where drinks and food were served and lots of people were moved.

This morning I took a meeting with a publicist who told me that nothing I’ve done is even worth discussing (or his time) unless and until I have a breakout hit.

Both are real. Both are valid. But one of these things moves me deeply while the other leaves me cold.
Is it just me or has our obsession with reaching the largest number of eyes possible reached an absurd height? We live in a world that tells us repeatedly that the value of our output as artists is directly proportional to the size of its audience. And yet, sitting in that room last night with a mere 75 other souls felt like heaven to me.

Am I deluding myself to think that gathering people in a club for a night of audacious entertainment is more important than a 2+ billion dollar gross for Avatar? Am I just a hopelessly-naive dreamer who needs to grow up and recognize the reality that the only way to make a living in this business is to reach more people more efficiently? If I believe the publicist with whom I met this morning, the answer is “yes.”

But I’m not so sure. Ultimately, I think it boils down to whether one values quantity or quality. The quality of the experience last night was one of the best I’ve had in years. We became one in the way that an audience does when it’s sharing in something magical. That’s so rare. That certainly did not happen to me when I sat in the dark with 200 other New Yorkers and watched Avatar. Not that I didn’t enjoy it. Don’t get me wrong.

I guess I’m starting to wonder: what matters to me more? My own immortality (to which the path for artists is generally huge sales) or the quality of experiences i have on this planet while I’m still alive.

Hmm… Food for thought on a rainy morning in Los Angeles.

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Ramon Ricker

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