“Just don’t give up trying to do what you really want to do. Where there is love and inspiration, I don’t think you can go wrong.”
–Ella Fitzgerald, singer
When we marvel at the feats of musicians like Ella Fitzgerald, it’s easy for us to overlook the hurdles they surmounted.
But the route to artistic and career success rarely proceeds along a smooth track, even for those who reach the top.
How can we stay the course through the many challenges of a life in music?
The short answer is: through resiliency, discipline, and commitment to the creative process.
Commitment to Process
Among other things, we have to stick to our practice schedules on both good days and bad. We have to learn from our mistakes, fuel our motivation, and adapt to ongoing changes in the music profession.
Truth is, creative achievement involves our making both productive decisions and ones that may seem to lead nowhere.
For instance, when we set out to improvise, compose, or master an unfamiliar piece, we go beyond our current knowledge. Sometimes we take a thread of inspiration and weave it into a powerful phrase. Other times we discover that an interpretation, original tune, or whatever needs to be ditched.
Similarly, we’re going to put together concert programs and make career choices that generate lucrative engagements, and we’re bound to try other ventures that fall flat.
In sum, to find creative avenues that bear fruit we often have to try ones that don’t.
The Big Bag of Experience
Actress Jodie Foster brought home this point in a 2006 commencement address at the University of Pennsylvania (from The New York Times):
You pick up bits and pieces of treasure and trash, pain and pleasure, passions and disappointments, and you start throwing them in your bag, your big bag of experience. You do some dumb things that don’t work out at all. You stumble excitedly on little gems that you never saw coming. And you stuff them all in your bag. You pursue the things you love and believe in. You cast off the images of yourself that don’t fit. And suddenly you look behind you and a pattern emerges.
You look in front of you and the path makes sense. There is nothing more beautiful than finding your course as you believe you bob aimlessly in the current. Wouldn’t you know that your path was there all along, waiting for you to knock, waiting for you to become. This path does not belong to your parents, your teachers, your leaders, your lovers. Your path is your character defining itself more and more every day, like a photograph coming into focus.
My bag of experience certainly contains both triumphs and stumbles. Lots of stumbles, actually, especially early in my career.
So I’m passionate about helping rising musicians make wise moves because although we should acknowledge missteps as essential to the creative process, we should also aim to minimize egregious ones (and I’ve made plenty of those).
8 Avenues to Artistic & Professional Achievement
Here are 8 ways that music lovers can rack up experiences that promote artistic and professional achievement. Page references point to my book The Musician’s Way; links point to other articles on this blog.
- Formulate a flexible artistic vision and career plan; be specific, realistic, and altruistic (p. 300, 310).
- Acquire inclusive practice, performance, musical, collaborative, and career skills (Chapters 1-11, 14).
- Practice consistently (p. 11, 311).
- Become a student of creativity (p. 309).
- Build community (p. 303, 313).
- Regularly seek coaching and feedback from teachers, mentors, and colleagues (p. 293).
- Take risks and expand your horizons (p. 104).
- Safeguard your health (Chapters 12-13).
Achieving Your Destiny
William Jennings Bryan said, “Destiny is not a matter of chance, it is a matter of choice; it is not a thing to be waited for, it is a thing to be achieved.”
I invite you to take charge of your musical destiny and work daily to stoke your big bag of experience.
© 2010 Gerald Klickstein