To whom am I addressing this question, and why do I think it’s important enough to write about? I am writing primarily to those of you who have pursued music degrees as well as any of you who might be wondering whether you want to pursue music seriously.
My goal in posting this article is to bring a complex matter, which I believe is affecting classical music performers and audiences alike, to the reader’s attention.The matter in question concerns the performance-driven ethos of the contemporary music scene. Though it may be counter-intuitive, I want to propose an alternate lens through which performers can view their work - whatever that may be - as successful.
For me, the risk in pursuing a music degree is not a financial one, despite what they say. Imbedded deep into the fabric of many music conservatories in the United States is an unspoken belief: being a successful performer means winning competitions, executing technically flawless performances, and playing with perfect intonation. This mentality is usually taught indirectly, but finds reinforcement when competitors with the loudest sound and fastest scales win the competitions, for example.
Just as succeeding in the performance arena means winning competitions, not winning equals failure, which pretty much describes 99% of performers. In addition to the cut-throat environment, the number of performers who feel like failures only adds to the level of insecurity and status anxiety. Damage increases when graduates go on to view themselves and their colleagues primarily as technicians competing to prove their worth and gain a particular image of success. The act of making music is then reduced to a display of self-affirmation and egotism, which I argue attracts a certain kind of audience: the one who delights in spectacle and virtuosity.
I urge music conservatories to consider how they communicate what it looks like to be successful to their students, and if necessary to revisit their definition of success. I also encourage teachers to acknowledge the subliminal messages in conservatory culture. I am grateful for and indebted to each of my teachers who taught me a refreshingly different mindset: Dr. Daniel Paul Horn, defined his expectations for me as “becoming better than what I once was.” This was a picture of success I could tackle without despair.
In a culture where perfection seems to be the only measuring rod, I think the real risk in pursuing a performance degree is in choosing to do it a different way. It takes guts to be content with my unique gifts and faithfully hone these skills, instead of anxiously trying to out-play my peers. It took courage to pursue a doctorate in piano performance and it took courage to stop proving myself once I got it. It takes a daily effort to articulate the difference between being the best and being better than what I was yesterday. But it’s an important difference. For me it’s been the difference between a life of slavery and a life of freedom.