When Are We Successful?

Success is a funky thing…everyone wants to achieve it, and yet the goalposts for acquiring success are not only different for each of us, but continually moving (as goalposts seem to have a habit of doing these days). The topic of what is “success” for a composer never seems to actually come out into the light, but it seems to be subliminally ever-present when you hang around enough of them long enough. My own career allows me to be surrounded by composers of all ages and experiences, and I continually run into the dichotomy of the public concept of where a composer is and where that composer believes they are on the sliding scale of success. In order to assist in this thorny musing, one might delineate the life of a creative artist into three periods – play, study, and career – and glance obliquely at how the idea of being successful can ebb and morph throughout those periods.

When composers first start to discover that they enjoy making their own music, they tend to be at a young enough age (12-20) that what-am-I-going-to-do-with-my-life has not yet reached their radar screens. Whether “composing” entails plunking down notes on a piano, multi-tracking their own voice, fooling around with a notation program, or writing something for their rock band, making music is just about having fun – primarily by themselves or with their friends. Whether or not they are successful comes down to whether or not they are content with what they have created. When they are introduced to others who also write music, the reaction (from my own observations) tends to be positive – “hey, you like to do this too!” – and supportive; everyone wants everyone else to have fun.

The period that I think of as “study” is less dependent on when a composer actually starts studying with someone else (or a book, or scores, etc.), but rather when they come to the realization that this writing-music stuff is what they absolutely have to do for the rest of their lives. This realization is both exhilarating and freakin’ scary, especially when they run into the idea that other people, including mentors-who-know-everything and audiences-who-don’t-understand, will have to hear their music too and inevitably pass judgment on whether or not they “like” (whatever that means) both the music and the composer. How a composer views “success” at this point can be strongly affected by their own interpretation of the expectations of others, and I think that it is somewhere in this “study” period that those goalposts I mentioned before begin to materialize.

With the working composers that I’ve met and gotten to know over the past ten years or so, the best method that I can come up with to describe how they see success is by combining both “play” and “study” – they try to keep the expectations of others in mind, but they also re-discover the unbridled creativity that got them interested in writing music in the first place. Another discovery that often takes place is the definition of “career” to each composer. Some go through their “study” period with the firm intent on teaching at a university, others decide early on that they want to have nothing to do with the shackles of academia…and yet I’ve run into both types who after a time of living and “succeeding” in their chosen paths discover that they’d be just as happy or happier on the other side of the fence. If they are able to make a sustainable living (whatever that means) and are allowed to make the music that they want to make – this, for most, seems to be an acceptable definition of success. The extra trappings – awards, notoriety, well-known performers, etc. – rarely play a sizable role in their concepts of success; most are happy to have gotten this prize or that commission, but are fully aware that these recognitions are ephemeral by nature.

I have had a lot of people ask me about the composers I’m interviewing for my book – specifically how I decided which ones to talk to and if that means that I am in some way proclaiming each one to be “successful” (or, in some eyes, “more successful than others”). I have always felt that the strongest concept for such a project would be to take as wide and varied a sample as I could from the hundreds of composers who are out there and have worked hard to keep that sample as balanced as possible. While I’m not remotely finished yet, I do feel confident that everyone that I’ve spoken to so far thinks of themselves as successful, but only in relationship to their own personal and private goalposts.

3 thoughts on “When Are We Successful?

  1. Newman

    True enough. I would argue even further, though, to propose that one of the reasons one chooses a career in the Arts is that one is prepared for and comfortable with the fact that “success” will not necessarily be measured in money (like most other careers), but in quantity and quality of respect from one’s artistic community/peers. If as a composer (for example) you are respected, admired, followed, etc, than we perceive this as success, and no one particularly cares (especially those respecting and admiring) whether the respected individual is making any money at it. This is as it should be, I think. And so, the perception of success might be completely different between the artist (composer), and those admiring said artist. The admirers might perceive success, because they are, well, admiring. The composer, bogged down in the minutiae of reality and real-world issues (like, say, rent, or a car payment), might very well be trapped in a shorter view, and have the opposite perception. It’s a tricky balance, and it demands the (successful?) composer to regularly force him/herself to see that other perception.

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  2. Brigton

    Well put, Rob. I would add that a personal sense of making progress is an inward measure of success as well. Progress toward an honest personal and effective style of expression.

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