Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Some success is random

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I used to teach at Brown University, where students at various levels of piano playing could take lessons for credit.  Although a small number were interested in music as a career, most were bound for medical school, law school, or financial services.  I remember one girl in particular who really was quite gifted, but who had no intention of pursuing a career in music.  I asked her if she had ever thought about it, and she said she didn't feel comfortable pursuing a career with no clear "path," no defined avenue towards success, whether defined in monetary or artistic terms.  By contrast, a student interested in medicine could follow certain steps and feel confident of a career - the difficult part would be getting in to a good school and persevering through an extremely difficult educational process, but getting over those obstacles meant almost a guaranteed job.

I myself was recently complaining to a pianist friend about being passed over for an opportunity I thought would be good for me, and for which I thought I was qualified.  This colleague is a wonderful pianist, a real artist, and for better or for worse an idealist: she thought I should simply concentrate on doing my best, and that, in the end, opportunities would find me.  This has in fact generally been my modus operandi: focus on the art, and the career will follow.  But I am starting to realize that this is not always quite true.  Success in the arts seems to come from a mixture of producing great work *and* finding ways to make sure people notice.  The question is how much of a percentage each of these two aspects play in making a successful career.  I think I may have been overestimating the importance of the former.

Has it always been like this?  Was Franz Liszt the greatest pianist of his era, or did he just have a good manager?  I think that in fact management *did* play some role in his success, but from what we hear, he really was unbelievable.  Vladimir Horowitz was of course blessed to have the benefit of great managers and the backing of record labels - but he really genuinely was a superlative pianist, arguably the greatest of the 20th century.

 Perhaps there are a very few artists who are so extraordinary that they can have success without thinking about their careers (or without hiring someone to think about it for them).  For example, could Martha Argerich or David Oistrakh or Renee Fleming possibly have been overlooked?  Anyone walking through the practice room hallways of a conservatory would hear musicians like them and would take notice. 

But beyond those top one thousandth of 1% are many worthy artists battling for a finite number of opportunities.  Perhaps the top 1% talent-wise are all "good enough" to satisfy the public who buy tickets or download music, and within that 1% the difference between having 100 concerts a year and having 10 is public relations, marketing, and luck.  In other fields, such as in pop music or in Hollywood, the number of "qualified" musicians or actors, those good enough for most of the public, is even larger, and hence having a successful career seems even more due to luck or chutzpah.  (Of course there are some - the young Michael Jackson, say, or Meryl Streep - who really are special in their fields, but there are thousands of others who are more or less equal to each other in ability, but are separated by different amounts of good looks, or street smarts, or being the right place at the right time). 

I don't think that audiences are dummies - if you had them listen to three pianists, one a good conservatory student, one a winner of a major international competition, and Martha Argerich, they could almost certainly pick out which was best.  But I think that concert presenters nowadays are more and more nervous about taking a chance that audiences won't show up at all.  (They are probably right to be nervous).  Another colleague was telling me of his struggle with a series he runs (he is both an important pianist himself, as well as an organizer of a concert series).  While he would like to invite only people he thinks are valuable artists that the public should hear, he also has to think about what will sell the largest number of tickets, so that his series can stay in business - and these people, who have the biggest "name" value, are not necessarily as good as the less-known people he may want to bring.  But the cycle perpetuates itself - if a lesser known artist isn't booked for any concerts, he/she will continue to be a lesser-known artist.  (In case you are wondering, I AM playing on the series he runs - but it is in a place where I am well-known, and a significant enough draw.)  Several years ago, many concert series were struggling due to a financial crash (not this most previous recession, but an earlier one) and I thought that as a younger artist this could benefit me because while a concert series might not be able to afford Pollini's fee, they would be able to afford me.  (Sort of how places like Wal-Mart do well in a recession).  But my manager (at that time) said, no, actually, concert series who worried about money were even less likely to hire someone who might not sell-out their concert hall.  (Is this like a car dealer who, in a recession, would elect to stop selling Hondas, and only sell Rolls-Royces?  I guess the situations are not analogous). 

It makes me yearn for the "purity" of sports, where the winner of a race is the one who runs fastest, and that's that.  But even in sports it is not always as clear-cut as that: on a baseball team, for example, there may be a minor league pitcher who waits each season for the chance to prove himself in the big leagues, but the manager keeps calling up his teammates instead, because he likes their stuff better. 

Well, if I can possibly form some constructive advice out of all of this: make the most of every opportunity.  You never know who will hear you, who will be in the audience who has a brother whose wife runs a concert series or whose uncle has a record label... I can say from direct experience that I've gotten lots of opportunities in my career at moments when I least expected it.