The Artist’s Dictionary: Redefining Success

Around Christmas last year, I received the music for an upcoming concert I was going to be playing with Chicago’s Ensemble Dal Niente. Being my usual neurotic self, I looked at the parts and immediately commenced freaking out by practicing furiously, even though I was technically on vacation. A few days later, my brother-in-law relayed to me a conversation that he’d had with his six-year-old daughter:

“Daddy, why does Auntie Sara play cello so much?”

“Because it’s her job. That’s what she does to earn money.”

“Daddy, that’s silly! Cello isn’t a job!!”

You know how sometimes a six-year old can say something that instantly shatters your self-esteem? Well, suddenly I found myself defending my career choices to a kindergartener. I literally began to recite my resume to her, at which point I realized that, well, I was reciting my resume to a kindergartener.

This whole episode reminded me of similar stories I’ve heard from friends and colleagues. Together we’ve rolled our eyes at the people in our lives who just don’t get what we do. What we often don’t admit out loud, though, is how hard we take it. So I started wondering: Why are musicians so on edge about the validity of what we do? What does it take to make us feel like we are successful? And how do we even begin to define success?

violinist meme

What it seems to come down to, in many cases, is that musicians are hardwired to base our sense of success on how our career is perceived by others. If you think about it, it makes sense: when others approve of our playing, we get good reviews, big audiences, standing ovations, fame, fortune, etc. Throughout school, auditions, and gigs, we’ve relied on the judgement of others to gauge our own talent, so it’s all too easy to allow their perceptions to determine how our professional career is going, too.

The root of the problem might be that the 21st-century classical musician doesn’t seem to have an updated guide to gauging success. Think about what you were taught in school about how to become “successful,” and where you would be now if you had followed that path. If you had truly succeeded, you would have either landed a full-time job in a major symphony orchestra or ensemble, accepted a tenure track faculty position at a prestigious university, or won first prize in a major international competition. No biggie. But seriously, is this model of success even valid anymore? Why are these still the only clear markers we have to “prove ourselves” in our field?

Because our views on success are so often skewed towards these milestones, musicians who take alternative paths are often unfairly looked upon as less successful. Our traditional ways of defining success are suddenly inapplicable, and this leads us to feel dubious about the legitimacy of someone who is forging their own entrepreneurial path, or who feels satisfied with their work, though it may be unconventional. If what you’re doing isn’t easy to slap a label on, then you must be failing…unless, of course, someone influential notices you and publicly declares your success. This is the sense I sometimes get, both from the outside world and even among musicians.

One emerging musician whom I know has done a lot of thinking on this subject is Meerenai Shim, a flautist who specializes in new and experimental music. When I asked her to define success, she laid out five separate definitions, from how she used to think of success to how she defines it now. She began with her view when she was a student that achieving success meant becoming famous or winning a big orchestra job (sound familiar?), went on to her real-world post-college impression that success meant being able to pay the bills as a full-time musician, to then land at her current definition: “Success to me is making meaningful art.” She has approached her career from all types of angles: gigging and teaching to make ends meet, getting a day job to allow herself the financial freedom to pursue her new music projects, and, ultimately, ditching both the teaching and the day job so she could focus solely on the music that is most important to her, which is turning out to be the key to achieving that last definition of success she came up with. Taking this approach certainly comes with its financial risks, of course (check out Meerenai’s blog post on “making it work”), but often the confidence that comes with taking those risks is what can lead to hard-earned successes, both musically and financially.

More and more musicians these days seem to be following the same line of thought as Meerenai. When I posed the question of how to define success on Twitter, many of the responses I got were along these lines:

twitter success definition

The new music community is clearly thinking about success in new ways–ways that free us from external judgement and allow us to base our success on the achievement of personal goals, artistic fulfillment, and driving vision. But while it’s great that so many professional musicians are coming to these conclusions, I couldn’t help wondering whether the old model of success, the one that’s based on fame and fortune, is still what students and young professionals are clinging to. So on a recent trip to Miami, I spent an afternoon chatting on this topic with Howard Herring, the president of the New World Symphony.

As a New World alum myself, I know all too well the organization’s reputation for churning out young hotshot musicians who head straight from their NWS fellowships to the top symphony jobs around the country. And fifteen years ago at NWS, you might say that winning a symphony job was the official definition of success. However, orchestras aren’t as stable as they once were, and word has gotten out that the euphoria you might feel after winning an audition may not necessarily stick with you for the next 40 years on the job. What Howard pointed out at the very beginning of our talk was that there’s a big difference between a “job” and a “career.” A job is something that you get, a career is something that you build. When I asked him what definition of success he hopes to imprint on the NWS fellows, he explained that achieving success in one’s career comes from embodying these three principles:

  1. Independence. Independent thinking allows us to think outside the box and be proactive about our passions.
  2. Inclusiveness. When we engage our communities, great things are possible.
  3. Responsibility. Taking responsibility for our art form ensures its continued relevance in society.

“When you are true to those concepts,” Howard told me, “you can manage the potential and the problems, and the success is all yours.” And those concepts, according to Howard, are constantly morphing to fit in with each new era. Take inclusiveness, for instance. In the not-so-distant past, that may have meant playing an outreach concert in a nursing home or giving spoken program notes before a performance. But now–and this was when he started really getting excited–we’ve reached a new digital era that is changing the way we think and igniting our imaginations. No longer is our community limited to the audience in front of us or the city we live in. In the digital era, our community is truly global, and that makes the potential for inclusiveness, and therefore success, all the greater.

Howard admitted that, for a large number of the current NWS fellows, winning an orchestra job is still the most important measure of success. For now. “Far more musicians are cut out for this [alternative] type of career than they acknowledge,” he told me. He is giving young professionals the knowledge and the resources to eventually make their way to redefining success for themselves, while at the same time aware and accepting of the fact that those young professionals might not be ready to do so right away.

My biggest takeaway from the various responses that I heard from Howard, Meerenai, and others was that in this new and somewhat turbulent era for classical music, our own personal success isn’t just about us anymore. The old model is no longer relevant because simply having a job or being a superstar doesn’t necessarily contribute to our communities or to our art. Music is bigger than ourselves, and how we shape our careers affects the role that classical music will play in the lives of our children and grandchildren.

I had to chuckle as I thought back to that comment from my six-year-old niece. “Cello isn’t a job!” she protested. She was completely right. Success cannot be defined by how we make a living. What truly defines success is the way in which we incorporate independence, inclusiveness, and responsibility into our careers. When we focus on these principles, we succeed not only in satisfying our own artistic needs, but by also making a difference in the communities we live in and sustaining the art that we are passionate about.

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Sara Sitzer

Sara Sitzer
Photo by Julisa Fusté

Sara Sitzer is a cellist based in Chicago.  A member of Chicago Q Ensemble and the Elgin Symphony, she has also been heard performing with the Milwaukee Symphony, Ensemble Dal Niente, Anaphora, New Millennium Orchestra, and the Firebird Chamber Orchestra in Miami.  Sitzer is founding artistic director of the Gesher Music Festival of Emerging Artists in St. Louis. She holds performance degrees from the University of Wisconsin and Boston University, and completed a three-year fellowship with the New World Symphony under the direction of Michael Tilson Thomas.

10 thoughts on “The Artist’s Dictionary: Redefining Success

  1. Philipp Blume, y'all

    Don’t we have a sunny disposition! Thanks for this article, but how did you get through it without uttering a single word about money?

    I can compose a new work that people can instantly hear in Perth on the other side of the globe, they can leave a comment on my SoundCloud page, and then together we can make an Earth sandwich. It really is nice to engage someone I’ve never met, and to interact with them. Unprecedented! But I need time to compose, and for time I need to earn money. $$$ are not the only measure of success, but they aren’t NOT one either!

    I’ll be honest: I think articles like this, which turn broad structural systemic problems into personal ones, do more harm than good. Just my own opinion.

    Reply
    1. Mischa Salkind-Pearl

      I think you are conflating financial stability with artistic fulfillment, putting the two concepts together in the single word “success.”

      I’d venture–and this is just my opinion–that you may find a way to pay the bills, but that does not necessarily indicate success as an artist. It looks like we have three options:

      1. define success as financial stability (ignoring the relevance of artistic fulfillment),
      2. define success as artistic fulfillment (dodging the need to make a living), or
      3. conflating the two and accepting that most artists are unsuccessful.

      Reply
  2. Paul H. Muller

    “Why are musicians so on edge about the validity of what we do? ” Music is a calling and not a job – as your six year-old friend observed. Perhaps the reason it isn’t seen as a job is because it no longer resembles the rest of working society. The symphony orchestra is a 19th century phenomenon created at a time when people would apprentice at a skilled craft – barrel making, blacksmith, Baker, furniture maker, wagon wheel maker – etc. These are occupations that require much practice to master and whose products are appreciated as such. Playing a traditional acoustic instrument is like that – you practice six hours a day and play a few times a week with 80 other similarly skilled people. And the product is just as beautiful as 200 years ago, but it may not resonate with an audience that isn’t working in the same fashion at their 21st century jobs.

    Skill and craft have given way to knowledge and automation as the primary virtues in the workplace. We direct electronic technology to get what we want done – moving tons of data or moving tons of steel – and we typically do it alone in a small cubicle. Perhaps the symphony orchestra – one man/woman to one oscillator – just looks inefficient and foreign.

    Reply
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  4. Kyle Gann

    I’ve spent a day thinking about Sara’s article, which I like, and Philipp’s interesting response, to which I am also sympathetic. On one hand, it is indeed a structural systemic problem – we’ve all been robbed by the oligarchic 0.1%, and, the arts having always been particularly vulnerable in the best of times, I think we can probably all say that we haven’t had the careers we might have had if corporations had remained as committed to the social contract as they were in the 1970s. (I’m thinking particularly of the major record labels and their occasionally altruistic nods to new music – some of you won’t be old enough to remember.) We should continue to fight back and reclaim the territory which the arts rightfully deserve, and many of us do in various ways. At the same time, we are, individually, helpless to effect broad social change in the short term, and we do need to find ways to redefine success that allow us the psychological space and sense of purpose to go on with our work.

    I would add to that that the classical music world, and our music-historical pedagogy, have an unfortunate history of raising unrealistic hopes of what a composer can expect to achieve. Back when there were maybe 200 or 300 composers in Europe, and one of them was a Schumann and one a Brahms and one a Bruckner, they seemed relatively like giants, and both a canon and a Great Man Theory formed around them. Now that there are tens of thousands of composers (at least), and many, many of them doing wonderful work, the idea of a continuing canon is no longer tenable, and the Great Man Theory ought to be (more often than it is) revealed as a kind of nationalistic anachronism. The ability to write good, interesting music is not all that rare, and that more multilayered, technologically dazzling art forms (movies) have grabbed away much of the culture’s attention is pretty understandable. I think my student composers realize today, even better than the ones from ten years ago, that they are not going to go out and be “the next Stockhausen” or whoever, and that the competitiveness bred into the composing lifestyle for those Great Man canonic slots produces a lot of misery as a side-effect. So I do think Sara’s emphasis on community and local relevance point to values that we need to be focusing more on, even if we can someday get the capitalist machine back in more equitable running order. We deserve more social recognition for the arts, but the classical music world itself is hardly blameless, and needs to update its anachronistic rhetoric and ameliorate the pervasive inequality in the capricious, Great-Man-Theory-tainted way it rewards composers with opportunities.

    Reply
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  6. Mischa Salkind-Pearl

    Thanks for the article, Sara. It’s a nice exploration of a topic that is personally important to many of us.

    It strikes me that, perhaps, we are focusing too much on defining success, and that the act of definition is itself impacting us psychologically (if we are constantly readjusting our standards, I wonder if we will begin to feel like we are adapting our view of the world to our present situation, rather than inciting any sort of personal agency to get ourselves to where we want to be).

    Personally, I prefer not to think about success too much, and in fact I consider it a hindrance to what is more important: my own artistic fulfillment. I don’t want to be a successful artist, because by definition that implies that I make few enough mistakes (or that I deviate from a proscribed path only so slightly) to suffer any consequences. I’d rather be constantly imperfect, frequently wrong, and always slightly ignorant. So we can call this state “success,” because it represents what I want. But why must we want success? The word itself signifies a transcending of obstacles, but those obstacles are specifically what I cherish, and I believe they are what make us good artists.

    Can we call it something else? Can we just call it “conviction,” or “happiness,” or “impulse”? This way we don’t have to position ourselves against what other people do, nor, more importantly, do we have to position ourselves against our ideal selves.

    Reply
  7. Michael J. Evans

    Great article! I am one of those composers who did not follow a traditional path. I work a day job in a non-music profession. The money has allowed me to fund my own projects and do my own thing.

    Some of the times I’ve felt the most successful as a composer have been when multiple people have told me they keep one of my CDs in their car to help them combat road rage, and when a friend told me that he gave his mother, a surgeon, a copy of one of my discs, and she plays it in the operating room all the time.

    Reply
  8. Stephen Lockwood

    Thank you Sara, for an article that is so “on topic” for our times. I believe all of us wrestle with this subject, because certainly the paradigm has changed, and we must recognize that old constructs do not apply.
    I have had to redefine my attitude towards success thrice that I recall, as the industry/art that I am involved with has changed. In the 70’s yes, I did define success as a major label contract, and actually came very close to getting that in the mid-80’s. Then when digital technology happened, and I could produce myself, I actually found that I was better off, because I defined my success on my own terms instead of a publisher/label construct which had at it’s base $$$ and units sold, let’s face it. Also, it’s true that in terms of “fame/fortune” I recognized early on to forget it, because as a jazz musician, the audience was so small, and quickly getting smaller, that I was just plain being ridiculous.
    I then commenced to seriously follow the ideas of my forbears and just, as Thelonious Monk put it, “be yourself”. In other words be honest, say what you really mean, craft it well, and let the rest of the world do what they want with it.
    This is not to say that I have no interest in what others think, yes, I do, because I seriously want to reach people with what I have to say. It’s one of those things that’s hard to come by but totally necessary to be a real artist: an internal need and desire to communicate is success itself.
    Now, I define my success almost completely on my own terms. I keep a balance of intensity on $$$ and aesthetic/artistic growth. Some projects I create purely for one, some for the other. I trained in conservatory studying standard classical repertoire so that I could make a living as a working musician, not to win some competition playing standard repertoire. I play, write, and perform jazz and experimental music simply because I love it deeply; in the 30 or so years that is the only reason. And it has given me immense growth personally and musically. Hard to beat. Money-wise, one must learn to “live lean”. You can’t go into this life thinking like engineers, and doctors. Success is staying in the business, and that is a balancing act.

    Reply

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