But you don’t learn how to do that in school. There’s so many other things to learn, and why not learn exactly what your professors specialize in? Education isn't all about getting a job. Luckily there are so many resources out there to figure it out.
These two books have helped me adjust my expectations and point me in the direction of the building my own career. They are very similar, and neither is better than the other. I could not recommend reading one or the other, I urge you to read both. The more we read different interpretations of similar ideas, the more we will be able to apply those ideas to our own lives.
Both books urge you to think beyond the basic talent you need for success. (Of course, based on my previous blog post, I use the word ‘talent’ very loosely!) Both books assume you have that talent, and urge you to consider that your talent alone does not define you. There are so many talented people trying to do the same thing you are. You have to find, not just what makes you special, but how you can thrive in the environment you live in, along with the people you know.
Both deal with the tricky financial side of the equation. Of course we need to make a living. There are so many factors to consider that finances for musicians could be a book series in and of itself. But these books lead us to start asking the right questions, to seek the answers we need.
Both teach you ways to develop projects, promote yourself, build an identity, and how to network and help others. Both emphasize that ‘getting ahead’ can never be a matter of pushing others down; we benefit most from helping others get ahead. This is the most exciting factor for me. Rather than looking for my next big break, why not looking for the value I can add to other people’s lives and careers, and appreciate what value others give to me.
While I’ve focused on books in this blog series, I would be remiss not to mention two other resources:The Marketed Musician, a podcast and online course platform; and The Entrepreneurial Musician podcast. Both are constant inspirations to me, and have helped sort out and correct all of the ideas I’m working through these days!
“But to become excellent, all the reading, studying, and theorizing in the world is simply not enough. The key? Just do it. Jump in, get your hands wet, be willing to make some mistakes along the way, and stick with it. Many musicians become so obsessed with the idea of excellence, they refuse to even try anything that doesn’t guarantee 100% success. As a result, ironically, their growth is stunted.” (Cutler, pg. 28)
Not just to create opportunities for ourselves to make a living, but an entrepreneurial mindset, expanding the opportunities available to us with musical training alone, is imperative to be ambassadors for classical music.
It’s easy to be pessimistic about the state of classical music today. We could talk about declining CD sales, greying audiences, growing numbers of competitors for a shrinking number of positions.
But what else has changed? Technology has advanced so much that any individual can record their work with just a little financial investment. Media barriers have disappeared so that we can send our work out into the world with ease.
We don’t need to look for affirmation from any institution, be it government, academia or concert promoters. Towards the end of my DMA, I came to a greater peace with the idea that I might not be a professor. In fact, I might not make my living in music at all. But I would always be a musician. Once you’ve trained and developed an artistic voice, you’ll never lose it.
In order to reestablish classical music in the culture, we don’t just need people to reinforce the traditions of classical music which have witnessed the decline of its impact. We don’t have to throw out those institutions and traditions either, but we can expand their reach, we can influence non-musicians with our expertise in our day-to-day lives, and find new ways to expand our sphere of influence.
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A lot of studying the piano is learning to copy, from our youngest years through at least until completing undergraduate education. Initially, this isn’t a bad thing. We need models to learn:
But there comes a time that we want to move away from copying. Until we do, we generally only function as accidental, or perhaps unintentional, pianists. We’ve done everything by chance, regurgitating what we’ve learned instead of processing and adding value to everything we’ve been taught.
Sometimes when we think we’ve gone off on our own, we haven’t actually done so. I’ve argued that the act of performing is at least as important as the texts on which our performances are derived. I believe our ears are easily manipulated by what we hear and most of our performance decisions are not truly our own; see case studies in Beethoven and Liszt.
And so I’d like to suggest embracing what I have decided to call 'intentional pianism'. What makes a great pianist stand out? Our favorite pianists have at once a pianistic voice that is all their own, that sounds completely familiar, and simultaneously keeps us thinking and guessing. They’ve studied all the rules but have commanded the authority to break them. They have a sort of intentionality to the way they play music.
All this is not to suggest that intentional piano playing is limited to the great masters. Some of my absolute favorite musical memories are from pianists who are not famous to the general classical music population. Some of the most distinctive performances I’ve seen were by students who brought an energetic commitment rare among artists, others are from professional artists who have sought their own career path, whether to pursue unique repertoire or venues for their performances. Anyone can play with intentionality.
Nor do I want to suggest that our educational system is failing students. I’ve benefited from studying with an incredible, diverse group of piano teachers, all of whom are brilliant, and largely fall into the category of a ‘traditional’ piano teacher.
And there’s nothing wrong with role of traditional piano teacher, in fact, traditions are essential. But to step out as performers with a personal intentionality, we need to use traditions as a stepping stone, not an end in themselves. Our professors in lessons and classes only have so much time to help us reach the level of being a unique artist. My goal with this blog and other future endeavors is to supplement the great teaching that goes on in piano lessons and schools of music. I believe some of the keys to being intentional include:
With this blog, most of all, I hope to outline how one can become a truly independent, a truly intentional pianist. Over the course of this next year, I’m going to present 5 blog series along with several standalone posts. First will be Extraordinary Recordings, a series studying several of my personal favorite performances on record, focusing on what makes the performer so unique. This will be, in a sense, a series of 9 case studies on pianistic intentions. Simultaneously, I will report on my viewing of the Cliburn Piano Competition, my favorite performances as well as thoughts on the repertoire chosen, and nature of competitions in general. What better way to ruminate on the state of intentionality than by studying this competition of world-class, young talent?
Later on, with the hope of inspiring some summer reading, I will release a series of posts on Influential Books. Some of these will be explicitly musical, but several will be from outside the musical world. In the fall, I will be ruminating on the Coexistence of Contemporary and Traditional Classical Music. This will be in preparation for a project that I’m very excited about, which I will announce later in the summer. Finally to end the year, I will discuss my views on Performance Practice, especially focusing on my work studying the amazing pianist Ervin Nyiregyhazi.
I hope you’re as excited about this journey as I am. Please subscribe to my e-mail list to the right, as I would love to keep you apprised as each new series is rolled out, as well as my projects as a performer.
"Modern performers seem to regard their performances as texts rather than acts, and to prepare for them with the same goal as present-day textual editors: to clear away accretions. Not that this is not a laudable and necessary step; but what is an ultimate step for an editor should be only a first step for a performer, as the very temporal relationship between the functions of editing and performing already suggests." -Richard Taruskin, Text and Act