Let me start by first putting forth the thesis of this article as clearly as I can: if you want a career in music, you MUST invest. You cannot be shy about spending money to get the advice and guidance that you need.
I had the wonderful experience of hosting U.S. Coast Guard bandsman and co-owner of Monster Oil, Tom Brown, into my Brass Connections program to do a talk. I was floored by what he had to say, and it deserves to be parroted to all who will listen— in a nutshell, desire and talent is worthless without commitment and action. I’ve been wondering why we discount ourselves like that– applying less than full effort, hedging our bets, procrastinating, etc. I am not talking about ignoring other commitments or setting priorities. I am talking about how we short sell our time, energy, effort, and finances. It is almost as if we think we can beat the market price somehow. It is like professional Black Friday. A flood of people after cheap advice which will fail the day after their warranty expires.
As musicians, or musicians-in-training, be very skeptical of those deals. A mistake I see often from other professional musicians and pre-professional students is not reinvesting, or poorly reinvesting their time and money. The party line is that we should all shop around and be looking for a good value, try to save money, stay close to home, etc. This can mean a cheaper school, a closer teacher, or foregoing that summer festival because of the price tag. Something conditions us to avoid spending the money. Rest assured, it is a form of self-sabotage.
It is always worth remembering that nothing guarantees success in music, but without the requisite advice and experience to win the auditions and do the job, failure is all but guaranteed. I am not knocking making prudent financial choices. I am saying that, if you are at the the store and know what the job is, but for one reason or another restrict your search to the discount rack, your odds of success are in jeopardy. In trying to save and hustle the system, you lose the game before you even sit at the table— both your money and your time are spent with no return. We have all purchased some lookalike knockoff from Amazon, and we have all experienced the disappointment when said item is not very good and/or immediately breaks (I’m looking at you, “Apple EarPods”). We would have been better off buying nothing at all, or saving or working a few extra hours until we could afford the real thing. Those short term solutions are going to cost you. Duct tape can only hold some things together, and only for so long.
It took me a lot of Amazon orders and a lot of duct tape to figure this out. The world does a great job convincing us that value and the short term are what matters. People are convinced to keep costly backup plans, to take the cheaper option, or to settle for immediate success. But every time someone says “I just want the piece of paper,” the ghost of Thomas Baye licks his chops and the principals of conditional probability gear up for another busy day. The statistics of success are obfuscated with noise in both good faith and bad (freedom of speech, baby), but those statistics hum an incessant tune for those with their ears to the ground: your choices are not arbitrary. They matter. “How?” and “Why?” are vital questions. It is not just a piece of paper. Some choices will get you where you want to go, others will not. The path is narrow, there are many side trails, and there are a lot of pastures. Spending less money is not honorable– in fact, it is a correlative for failure.
I am not saying that all’s not well that ends well. Music is a really difficult business that I would not recommend to anyone unless they were absolutely certain they would not be happier doing something— anything— else. People that find a calling and passion in something else— GREAT. Get out. Save yourself. Go be happy. You are not a failure. Music is a worthy endeavor, but one must also live life happily with no regrets. There are so many worthy pursuits, and success in music absolutely does not guarantee happiness or fulfillment. Side hustles are not a sin, but rather a sign of an entrepreneurial spirit, and probably a correlative for success (so long as they don’t interfere). I recall a conversation I had recently with a major principal orchestral player and teacher that “making it” is more about obstinance than intelligence. There is no stinking honor in being miserable.
It would be naive and privileged of me not to acknowledge that accessibility and equity are their own HUGE problems, and there are warriors on the battle front dealing with this. There are even some exciting new solutions as technology improves access amidst this pandemic wherein the status quo is compromised. But on an individual basis, going forward, discernment and skepticism are sharp tools; know that it is someone’s job to convince you; and know that, on some level, nobody believes he or she is wrong. Naivety, pride, and blind loyalty are not your ally. You need knowledge, experience, and a team in your corner that is invested in your success. Look the salespeople in the eye and ask lots of questions. If they act offended, maybe the truth offends them. The truth is *always* incumbent on you to find.
I began taking professional auditions, really, in 2015, right after I graduated, and right after I had moved to Boston. They were not going well, and I began to blame myself and blame the industry. If I had continued on that path, it is doubtful my music career would have survived. One day, surfing the internet, I came across Anthony Plog’s web site, and noticed he was offering virtual lessons. If you haven’t met him, you should know that Tony is an honest, kind, and encouraging person. This was before virtual lessons were a normal and accepted practice. Working with him was the beginning of a slow process of critical mass that I believe saved my career. I began to exploit the many other resources available to me– more online lessons, mock audition groups, video exchanges with major orchestral players, sessions with Don Greene. And for the first time in a long while, my number started to get called at the end of rounds. That was back in 2016, and now I have the privilege of knowing and working with a bevy of awe-inspiring musicians– inspiration and insight on a daily basis.
The sad truth is that everybody thinks they are an expert (See: Dunning Kruger effect). You need a strategy for separating the wheat from the chaff. Here is one: find a quiet place, light a candle, take some deep breathes, and ask some questions: “What do I want? What am I doing to get what I want? What is my plan?” Seek out people you can trust to be completely 100% honest, so honest that it might hurt, and ask them to help you answer those questions. Then go to the record. Save up a few hundred dollars, find recordings with the musicians you love, and consider going straight to the source. I don’t know a single person who wouldn’t teach a student in the honest pursuit of getting better. Anything less and you are taking your chances. I have seen firsthand the delayed, shortened, and ended careers that can result.