Great Thinkers Inform Aspiring Musicians

College audition season is coming to a close. Students will soon be getting their acceptance and rejection letters, and then the time to make the big decision will be here. There have been numerous articles written about how to choose the best school for you (my colleague Rob Knopper recently wrote one you can see here). So much time is committed to making the correct choice, as it should be. However, regardless of where you choose to spend your next years, the single most important factor regarding your success is your mindset. 

“You now begin to leave childhood and start on the road to manhood. You will establish definitively the type of person you will be the remaining fifty years of your lifetime. You know what is right and wrong and I have confidence in your judgment. Don’t be afraid of failure. Be more afraid of not trying. Take chances and risks—not foolhardy actions, but actions which could result in failure, yet promise success and reward. And always remember that no matter how bad something may seem, it will not be that bad tomorrow.” - Colin Powell, Letter to his 16-year-old son

I'm often asked how many hours I practiced when I was in college, what my warmup routine looked like, how I got into the Met Orchestra at such an early age, or what is was like to study with great teachers. These are all good questions. However, there are more valuable questions and accompanying thoughts. Below, I pose 3 questions and 1 action item for those looking to become professional musicians. 

Question #1 - What do you want to be?

For those of you who have decided that you want to perform for a living, beware that your chosen path requires incredible passion, work ethic, and resilience. Your first order of business: Decide, specifically, what you want from your career.

When I was in high school, my father took me to my first professional orchestra concert; a performance of Mahler's Third Symphony with the Houston Symphony. At some point during that performance, a light switched on inside of me. I knew then I wanted to play in an orchestra. And not just any orchestra. A GREAT orchestra. I also knew what quality of lifestyle I wanted to have and the financial requirements of that lifestyle. From that point forward, my efforts were focused towards a very specific goal.

I didn't have a regular private lesson teacher. I wasn't in the local youth symphony. I didn't spend my summers at Interlochen. However, I had an advantage over many of my peers. I knew exactly what I wanted to do, and with that understanding came direction. 

“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who come alive.” - Howard Thurman

Every year, I ask young musicians, many of them prospective students, where they would like to be 5-10 years from today. Most students give answers like "I just want to be a better player" or "I'd just like to be able to make a living playing" or some other statement reflecting a lack of clarity, indecision, and lowered expectations. I often respond with the words of Al Sharpton. 

"I tell young people that you can't arrive someplace until you determine the destination. It sounds simple, almost clichéd, but it's an inescapable truth. If I'm at the airport, I can't buy a ticket until I know where I'm going. That's the first thing they ask you when you step up to the counter." - Al Sharpton

Question #2 - What price must be paid to be what you want to be?

"Next, you have to deal with the cost--this is the price of your trip, so are you willing to pay the price to get there? That's something every potential leader has to decide: Is it worth it to me to wake up at four A.M. every day and run around the park like Muhammad Ali training for a fight or to stay in the recording studio all night to get it right like James Brown? The price of leadership may be graduating from Harvard Law School and going into the projects of Chicago to work for peanuts, like a young Barack Obama. What is your intention for your life, and are you willing to pay the price to get there? The destination determines the cost; the cost never determines the destination." - Al Sharpton

Once you know what you want to be, you can determine the price. Want to play in a great orchestra? Want to teach at a top university? Want to be the best middle school band director in the country? The path is clear. Want to be a great crossover artist, soloist, chamber musician? Want to do something nobody has ever done before? Having clarity is valuable. 

Educate yourself about the paths taken by those who have lived your dreams. Ask them how they did it. Respect their opinion. Don't fool yourself into thinking your ideas are better than theirs. The best new ideas come from first having an understanding and respect for what is already established. 

Question #3 -  Are you willing and able to pay that price?

"After that airport ticket taker finds out your destination and tells you the cost, what do they ask for next? Your ID. Who are you? Do you have the character to get your destination?" - Al Sharpton

In most cases, the wheel need not be reinvented to accomplish your goals. We live in the information age. For most things you want to do, the method has been established, the articles have been written, the videos have been shot, and the tools for improvement have been created. We exist in an age where you can carry your metronome, tuner, recording device, sheet music, recordings, books, and educational videos/podcasts in your pocket. The greatest obstacle standing between you and your goal is often times the commitment to take full advantage of these resources. There aren't many secrets left, which brings us to the action item....

Action Item #1 - Pay the cost to be the boss. 

“First say to yourself what you would be; and then do what you have to do.”- Epictetus

It really is that simple. Just do it. Create a plan, preferably with the help of someone smarter or more experienced than yourself. Carry it out. Be accountable to yourself. Don't let your dreams be curbed by naysayers, peers who don't share your commitment, or your own lack of industriousness. As Wynton Marsalis says in this video (skip to 4:45 for the point, then go back and watch the whole thing), too many people lose their spirit in music school. They get distracted. They let minor setbacks snowball into major issues. They lose sight of why they started down the path in the first place.

If you know what you want, and you want it bad enough, that desire will be reflected in everything you do. This commitment will be recognized by those who have likewise committed themselves, and the fruits of your effort will multiply. 

“When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.” - Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist

In short: Aim high. Be specific. Pay the cost. 

Bonus video - After you become the boss, you can blow up pickup trucks with a sawed off shotgun.

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