THE REST OF THE STORY: lessons learned which may be helpful to the aspiring musician


My formal biography outlines the accomplishments and positions I have attained, as well as some of my more prestigious activities along the way. But that biography does not tell the entire story. As is the case with virtually every successful performer, there are countless small steps, disappointments and failures along the way. Not included in my biography are the parades I  played in the rain, the quintet gigs played in sub-freezing temperatures, the countless (often frustrating) hours of practice alone in a practice room, the many rejection letters, and the dozens of auditions I took without success. Several of my teachers helped to prepare me to survive those experiences, by telling me of their own perseverance. The late Glenn Dodson - longtime Principal Trombone of the Philadelphia Orchestra, and one of my teachers at the Curtis Institute – told of the eight auditions over several years he played for Eugene Ormandy: each time being rejected, but continuing to return time and time again until he finally won the coveted position. It’s a story that demonstrates that determination and self-confidence are just as important as talent and preparation. Woody Allen famously said that “80% of success in life is just showing up”, and this can certainly be true in the music business…as long as you’re willing to show up over and over again, without giving up.

From my own experiences I have learned some valuable lessons, some of which may be helpful to those of you seeking a career in music. The first is to make it a point to learn from all of your experiences, both good and bad. Here is a specific exercise I encourage you to try…create a log of your performances, and divide it into two categories: those which went very well, and those that went poorly. You can obviously log performances as they happen, but you can also think back to past performances that stand out in your memory. These can be auditions, juries, recitals, ensemble concerts, even lessons. In your log, make notes about your preparation, your mental approach and state of mind, the  physical approach and techniques you used, and the musical ideas which you used in each of these instances. Be as honest and specific as you can. As you add more experiences to the log, you should be able to see patterns emerge in which there are certain commonalities among the performances which went well, and others for the performances that you were not happy with. It is then up to you to find ways to nurture the productive habits and eliminate the negative ones. (For more on strategies to help with this, I recommend the teachings of performance coach Don Greene, particularly his book Fight Your Fear and Win.) In any event, I urge you to study your failures so that you can learn from them; in doing so, you can salvage something positive from the experience to help you towards success, instead of allowing them to be a completely negative experience.

My next suggestion is to stop waiting for opportunities to come your way, and to start creating them for yourself. It is very easy to become singularly focused on preparing for auditions and winning a job. That is certainly a worthwhile endeavor, but for tuba players especially, it can be a long wait between auditions. Even as a student or a freelancer, it is too easy to wait around for someone to assign you a project or call you on the phone for a gig. Rather than waiting for the world to send you an engraved invitation, get to work creating something of value which you can bring to the table. Again, looking back on my own experiences, I realize that quintet playing is something that I have been involved in throughout my entire career, even during long periods of time during which I was taking auditions looking for employment. These groups were almost always something I had a direct hand in creating and organizing, and although we often performed for a fee, we just as often did not. The Center City Brass Quintet is a perfect example: in our early years – just out of school and living in four different cities - we went to great lengths to travel across the country to meet for rehearsals and concerts which we self-presented for no fee. No one hired us or asked us to play…we would just find an available venue and play a concert for whomever showed up. For one of our first concerts, the only free venue we could find was a dance studio; we were given use of the room with the understanding that no shoes were allowed to be worn. We played the performance in our socks, and the audience had to remove their shoes to hear the concert! Quintet playing is just one example of a productive use of your creative energy, but it is a good one because it demands a soloistic level of performance in an ensemble situation. In any event, the point is to take responsibility for creating the highest level of performance opportunities for yourself. At various times when professional opportunities were scarce for me, I poured  my energy into developing myself as a musician: learning a new clef, working on ear training, preparing a solo or chamber music recital, studying the work of other artists, or playing for and practicing with colleagues. These endeavors turned what could have otherwise been frustrating periods into challenging and rewarding experiences which paid off later. One of my teachers – Sam Pilafian – once told me that Leonard Bernstein told him: “put your energies into the music making, and the career will follow”. Advice from Leonard Bernstein via Sam Pilafian is as good as gold, as far as I’m concerned!

Speaking of music making, take a moment (perhaps a long moment) to think about why you are pursuing a career in music. More than likely, you had some pretty exciting, rewarding, joyous experiences early on that made a strong impact on you and those who heard you play. After responding to those positive experiences by making a decision to study music seriously and become a professional, it may be hard to maintain (or even remember) the original intention and motivation behind your chosen path. Everybody knows that the music business is about as competitive as it gets, and it’s very easy to get so consumed with succeeding that you forget why you are doing it, or more importantly…what you are trying to do. Especially for orchestral musicians – for whom auditions are the only way in the door - and even more especially for tuba players – for whom professional auditions take place as seldom as once a year – it’s hard not to focus on winning the audition, instead of on playing a great musical performance. What’s the difference? Well, focusing your energies on winning an audition puts a lot of emphasis on who your competition is, what the judges think, whether you will play well or mess up, and whether or not you will win…in short, focusing on things you cannot control, and on what the outcome will be. Focusing your energies on your musical performance means thinking about sound, phrasing, and delivering an emotional impact to the audience…this is stuff you have control over, and furthermore they are the only things you used to think about when you first discovered music. In short, focusing on winning the audition does not necessarily help you play your best, but focusing on your best, most committed performance just might help you win the audition. So, next time you are faced with a daunting performance or audition situation, try going back to your earliest roots as a musician, and stay focused on the music.


Copyright 2010 Craig Knox, all rights reserved