It happens with the onset of every new year—as people take a bit of time to assess where they have been and look ahead to where they are going and/or where they wish to go, discussions revolving around the nature of success crop up. There have been a slew of articles posted lately addressing the need to redefine success both for individual artists and for organizations (you can read some of them here, here, and here). A particularly good one came from theater artist Polly Carl, who makes a number of very smart points that are absolutely applicable to multiple art forms, including music composition and performance. (If in doubt, try substituting the word “music” for the word “theater” and “composer” or “performer” for “theater artist.”) Painters, writers, actors, puppet makers, etc. tend to endure very similar artistic struggles, and often I find that artists other than musicians are far better able to articulate the things that go on in so many of our heads.
Carl smartly makes the point that the path towards “success” is not linear, although all the standard models would have us believe that it is. Start at Point A, move directly to Point B, and so on. Small gigs become larger gigs, which become more frequent and always bigger, commanding larger commissioning fees, bigger halls, more folks in the audience; and with it the awards just keep coming with increasing frequency and increasing prestige. It sounds really nice, right? Yeah! To be honest, I can count on one hand the composers who have actually lived that model, and they lived it decades ago when our composing world was far smaller and more insular than it is today. In my experience and that of most of my musical colleagues, the path towards success moves in cycles; there are good years, there are bad years, and trying to predict or control how things are going to go is a recipe for frustration. This is true especially if one is defining “success” in terms of external validation such as awards, commissions, and other accolades. You win some, and you lose some. Sometimes you win a lot and then you lose a lot! Sometimes you win nothing. The composer Eric Whitacre has a few wise words on this subject for composers in the early stages of their careers.
One of the most illuminating things I have learned from my time here at NewMusicBox, and from talking to lots of composers, is exactly as Carl says, that many of the ones who have arrived according to the above terms don’t even realize it. It continually boggles my mind how many “successful” composers truly think their careers are floundering! What? Despite having won pretty much every prize and what-have-you that a composer can possibly attain, and receiving commission after commission, they are still deeply dissatisfied. Composers (and plenty of other types of artists) are generally so hard-wired to be thinking about the next achievement that it’s easy to lose sight of recent and current successes. The “externally” successful ones who are genuinely comfortable in their own skins and in their lives are surprisingly small in number, and I think they have figured out a way to define success for themselves that is internal.
For composers who do not choose to follow long-ago established narratives of success (of which there are many), it’s important to spend some time creating alternate visions of success. And even for those who are treading a well-worn groove in the road, it’s useful to confront assumptions about what success under such circumstances looks like in 2013. There are way more composers out there than there are teaching positions, Guggenheim awards, Pulitzer Prizes, and the like. Those things aren’t going to be possible for everyone, but that in no way means that one can’t still build a satisfying and “successful” career.
I really like the three points Carl makes about creating a picture of personal success—it is at once self-reflective and inclusive of others—which I’m going to quote, except with changed wording for musicians:
1. Spend this next year imagining your own definition of success as if it was as important as the next piece you write or concert you perform in. This will be your most creative endeavor, trust me.
2. Commit to the success of at least one or two other composers you care about. Imagine, in the most creative way, how you can support that artist’s career. Make this part of your workday. You will learn so much about your own definition of success this way.
3. If you haven’t created a personal ethics statement for how you will achieve your definition of success, do it. If your success is achieved on the backs of your collaborators or by breaking the backs of others, I promise you it won’t feel like success when you get there.
Most of all I appreciate the simple, clear plan of action for personal success recently outlined by a dear composer friend:
Keep making pieces.
Keep having pieces performed.