Four keys — be yourself

Don’t believe anyone who tells you not to be your own artistic self.

That follows from the third of my four keys to the future, “Be yourself.” I explained this in terms of pandering:

Your urgency, your joy, and your passion will draw people to you. But you can’t be joyful if you don’t love the music that you perform. So never pander. Never struggle to be relevant. Perform music that makes your heart sing. Trust your new audience. Trust it to be smart, to be curious, and to respond with joy when it sees how joyful you are.

And that’s true. But there’s more. Your urgency, joy, and passion won’t reach other people if they’re not really yours. If they don’t come from your deepest place, if when you present yourself to an audience you’re not doing exactly what you want.

This is crucial in classical music, because we’re not told to be ourselves. We’re told that doing what the composer wants is the most important thing a classical musician can do. We’re given prohibitions in music school — play this way, not that way. Don’t move while you play. Don’t call attention to yourself. It’s about the music, not you. Play in a restrained style. Don’t emote. One of my Juilliard students wrote a paper about the times she can’t be herself when she plays — at orchestra auditions, at school juries, at any performance her teacher attends. Which says volumes about what many of us learn at music school.

But one of the best things I’ve read about being ourselves comes from the inimitable Jade Simmons, in her blog “Emerge Already.” It’s a post called “Are You a Victim of Artistic Identity Theft?” Who can steal your artistic identity?

  • People who want you to play mainly standard classical rep, rather than other music that might speak to you more.
  • Your manager, who wants you to be just one thing, and can’t figure out what to do if you’re multifaceted.
  • Anyone who wants you to play classical music the way it’s always been played. Or the way they think it’s always been played.

Follow the link, and read Jade’s post. I assign it in my Juilliard course on the future of classical music and in my branding workshops. But there’s one part I want to quote here. It’s the priceless (in both senses of the word) bit about a manager:

I once had a manager ask me, “Well, what do we tell presenters when they ask us if you’re a pianist, or a spokesperson, a fashion plate, or a writer or a webhost?” He was worried my “extras” would cast doubt on my “main.” I say, tell them they’re getting a freakin’ amazing package deal!

I’ve quoted that last line many times. And it led to a revelation in one of my branding workshops, as you’ll see in my next post about being ourselves.



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  1. says

    “tell them they’re getting a freakin’ amazing package deal!”
    You bet, Jade! many of us come from an age when, if you played Beethoven and Liszt, how dare you go out there and play Leroy Anderson, or Keith Emerson? Young students in music schools should encourage themselves to reveal their many musical tastes whether they perform all of them or not. Just saying, ‘think out of the box’ means nothing, unless it is something each individual aspiring artist wants to do. If they feel that the music of Bach, or historic instruments is ‘their thing’, so be it. Back in the 1980s, there was a company, Affiliate Artists. If you were one of their selected artists for the season, you spent one-to-two weeks in one city, a residency of sorts. You went to the local schools, nursing homes, corporate offices, supermarkets, master classes etc. The community felt your presence, one-on-one, and by the time you played with the orchestra, you’ve touched many lives and they showed up to listen to the performance. Today, musicians can avail themselves in a similar fashion, working closely with the presenters to assure a visit well spent.

  2. says

    Thanks Greg. This reflects pretty much what I just told vocal students at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague at the start of a workshop Preparing Your Professional Future. Unless it is your profound and deliberate only wish to do so, don’t focus exclusively on the existing mainstream formats! On your age the future is yours and you better shape it yourself. In Holland (and elsewhere) it’s much easier to think ‘out of the box’ now, because due to the successful recent political attacks on the subsidy system here, the institutional boxes are narrowing and their walls are crumbling off. But do realize how easily they live on in your mind, hampering new ideas and concepts! Better be creative also in helping to rebuild the landscape yourself, not necessarily on existing stages and in existing formats. And find buddies!
    (We’re talking by the way not only of future but also of history…)

    • says

      Good thoughts, Caspar. In a way, the loss of subsidy is a good thing, because it forces us to think in new ways, do new things. AS long as the subsidies are in place, we don’t have as much incentive to find a new audience. And, conversely, if we do find an excited new audience, we have more chance of getting the subsidies back. (Or, in the US, of finding new donors, to give money to classical music.)

      I’m glad you did that workshop at the Royal Conservatory. I visited there a couple of years ago, met with administrators and students. The consensus, especially from the students, seemed to be that very few students were interested in doing things in new ways. Even though the administration strongly favored that! Have things changed?

  3. says

    Don’t know yet – just got started. It still is a mixed picture, but I met an encouraging and growing interest in this way of thinking. Some students already live up to this perspective , many more showed an interest. For most of them it seems to be an eye-opener which at the same time also does raise eyebrows indeed… Hopefully they feel stimulated to find answers to unforeseen questions. Wonderful, to have this lively encounters! Besides, one of my suggestions to broaden horizons was to follow Artsjournal and your blogposts.

    • says

      Thanks! Students, I’ve found, can be very lively. And full of ideas. All I’ve had to do, in many situations, is just ask them what they think. I remember asking 100 young orchestral players in a summer program how they’d change orchestra concerts, and getting a blizzard of responses. What helped even more was that the program was ready to implement their ideas.

      Glad you’re including ArtsJournal and my blog. They should range as widely as they can, when they look for ideas and info.