New York is an incredible place, brimming with drive, ambition, originality, and power. Many people come here year after year to "make it" in their artistic endeavors. There is, however, a cloud of smoke and mirrors to get past before one meets their truth, authentic self as an artist in NYC.
I have been here for eleven years of my life. Yes, there have been times when I kicked myself and said: "what in the world were you thinking, leaving your family and your music career in San Francisco only to come here and get sucked up and used by the next person who needs something from you?" Then again, there have been more times where I stop for a moment in the middle of the chaos around me and think, with gratitude, that I can't imagine my life thriving anywhere else as it has here.
With all of this excitement and drive, though, a person is still a person first. We need to eat, we need to sleep, we need to have a roof over our heads to hide away from that rain, snow, and wind, or that godawful humid, sticky air in the summer. We need to take ourselves out once in awhile for a nice dinner and a drink. We need to maintain active connections with other people, which involves paying phone and internet bills, going out on Friday nights for social gatherings, and having a laptop and a phone that work properly. Obviously, this takes money. Where does one draw the line between being pragmatic enough to survive in the world, and making music in the world about which they can feel good and proud?
Without a doubt, this is one of hardest lessons I have learned in the arms of New York.
Being a musician for a living means making sacrifices. It means taking work that doesn't necessarily appeal to one's own aesthetic preferences. It means serving someone else's vision for awhile, putting your own dreams aside in order to be fully present and fully musical in each moment; and if you want to make money making music, you simply have to do this. There's no way around it.
The words of Maya Angelou are coming into my mind at this moment:
"People Will Forget What You Said, People Will Forget What You Did, but People Will Never Forget How You Made Them Feel."
And The Rev. Jesse Jackson said this:
"It's your attitude, not your aptitude, that determines your altitude."
Playing or singing gigs for pay is a literal means of survival for musicians. If you want them to call you back for the next one, you have to do great things for them with a smile on your face and some sense of genuineness. In the food chain, there is always someone right behind you who is ready to take your place. It doesn't actually matter if that person is "better" or "worse" than you. The attitude around here tends to be "There are 8 million people in New York. Everyone is replaceable."
THIS. IS. NOT. TRUE.
Not everyone is replaceable. Music is a joyfully imperfect thing and without the nuances brought to the table by a widely varied tapestry of hands, feet, and voices, everything we listen to would sound like a midi mock up with little or no air to breathe between the notes. Real Music doesn't live in a vacuum like that. It depends on the conditions of living, breathing people, and it thrives on what they bring to the table from their different points of origin. That said, it's very hard to "be yourself" and not to want to "try to be what you think they want."
I think the confusion comes in knowing when do take each of these stances and when to take both at the same time.
Sometimes, you have to temporarily be what someone else needs you to be for that project. Sometimes you have to make momentary creative or interpretive decisions as you play or sing. Sometimes it's both at the same time.
The first real enemy in all of this, though, is that awful feeling of resentment. You know the one I'm talking about or you wouldn't be reading this. Shall I remind you? See above...
"what in the world were you thinking, leaving your family and your music career in San Francisco only to come here and get sucked up and used by the next person who needs something from you?"
We tell ourselves that "if we had stayed there" or if we "moved here" or if we "had gone to that school instead" or "pursued this genre more than we did," we would be or would have been more successful that we are. Then, we look around at the people who have invited us and are paying us to make music with them. We often compare ourselves to them in a knee-jerk reactionary way, and we resent them for being the one on the other side of the checkbook.
This brings me to the second real enemy in all of this: greed. It's hard to stare into the face of greed, especially knowing that most of us are taught from a very young age that the amount of money you make in your work and in your life at large is the primary indicator of success.
When you put these two things together, resentment and greed, it makes a deadly elixir. What's deadly about it, you ask? I'll tell you.
It goes down so easy when you drink it and it tastes so good. It makes you feel like you're "in the know," "more experienced," "in control," and like you're "the cool kid on the block and everyone wants to be in your gang." It's a way of reminding yourself that you are a diamond in the rough and are just waiting to be found by the right person - you know, the person with all the money and power who's going to thrust your career into overdrive.
The problem is that this poisonous elixir also poisons music-making. It alters your ability to think clearly and it takes your mind out of the game, rendering you useless to the people who are signing that check - the money that will pay for your rent, your bills, your food, and your other life needs. It also makes you forget your own essence and why you gave your life to music to begin with. If you forget these things, how can you share your uniqueness as part of that tapestry of hands, feet, and voices when you come to the table?
Resentment and Greed Kill Music.
I have a very dear friend who is an organist. He is one of the best organists I have every worked with. He studied in major conservatories for both undergrad and graduate work. He was taught by some of the foremost organ teachers of our time. His innate musicality and his professionalism are rather unparalleled from my perspective. We were working on a Choral Chameleon concert together. One day, after rehearsal, he told me that he was going to delve further into his "day job" and go back to school and get an MBA. I was absolutely stunned. I told him he was crazy. His response was amazing. He said:
"Well, I've learned that I just don't want to make any and all music that comes my way. I want to be able to choose which music I engage in and which I don't. I am tired of playing gigs around lots of people I don't know and with whom I am very disconnected just to be able to pay the bills. I am tired of feeling resentful. I find what I do at my day job interesting enough, and so when I'm there, I want to do that well. What's two more years in school? It will be done before I know it and I don't have to stop playing while I do it."
What all of this amounts to is a vital choice that professional musicians must make. It comes in the form of these questions to ask yourself:
I think that part of maintaining an active career as a musician - especially on foot in New York City day in and day out - is having the apporpriate tool kit with me at all times. This way, I'm really prepared for anything.
By way of reference, I work the following jobs on a weekly basis between late August and late June each year:
Obviously this is quite a lot for a single person to handle, but, believe it or not, it's rather common for a musician who is "in demand" by the textbook definition. Survival as a full-time musician involves many things. Perhaps the most important ones are:
Note: I am in the process of posting a 26-part series on "The Healthy Musician," in which I elaborate much more on the topics above.
The term "Every Day Carry" is definitely a trend on the internet and there are whole blogs entirely devoted to this, such as everdaycarry.com
Google defines "Everyday Carry" as "referrring to items that are carried on a consistent basis to assist in dealing with normal everyday needs of modern western society, including possible emergency situations."
I thought it would be fun to show you what I carry with me every day and how I organize myself so that I can do my very best in my work. Let's start with the bag itself...
Now, I confess, I am a sucker for bags. I have far too many of them. I'm sort of like a lady with lots of handbags. I have different ones in different sizes and styles, meant to be used for different purposes and different times. What I am focusing on here is the day-to-day bag - my "go to" bag for essentials, if you will.
I use the APERA Locker Pack in Graphite (shown here) as the base of my EDC.
The main reasons I love this bag are:
What I carry inside of the bag:
I have found that with this stuff on me at all times during the regular work week, I am prepared for anything. I hope that you've found this article helpful. I had a lot of fun writing it for you. Please reach out to me with any questions or suggestions!
If I had a dollar for every time someone made excuses for their work, their technique, or their appearance before or after an audition, a performance, or an in-class assessment, I could retire today.
I always say that talent is overrated and Geoff Colvin wrote a wonderful book about that topic. Setting all talent aside, there are still things a person can do to care for their music and its presentation before other people. Recently, this image was floating around on facebook:
I couldn't agree more with this.
The time a person has to prepare their work and love it into being from every aspect of that work happens before they decide to bring it in front of other people. When a person makes the choice to bring their work in front of other people, they are also saying to those people: "I'm ready for you to see and hear my work. I am ready for you to respond to my work. I am ready for my work to be out there."
It is also completely true that people get nervous about putting their work in front of others. This is natural and understandable. Scientific studies show us that when we walk out on stage in front of people, or stand up in front of our peers or our teachers to present our work, we immediately lose about 60% of what we have prepared beforehand. This is because the body has a natural reaction to pressure or perceived threat of any kind. It's called the Fight or Flight response and it is completely necessary to living creatures of all species. If humans didn't have this natural instinct, we also wouldn't know to run away from a lion when it's chasing us licking its chops.
---NO! I'm not comparing teachers, peers, audience members, or music jurists of any kind to hungry lions, though there are many out there who could be even scarier to a person than this. I do not condone their behavior. In fact, I hope that the day I do anything remotely resembling it is the day I retire from this profession.---
In fact, I am saying just the opposite. Most of the time, if people are holding auditions or teaching a class or paying to listen to us perform, they are doing so with a great deal of enthusiasm - whether or not they show that to us. They are happily anticipating hearing what we are about to give them. If they're not happily anticipating it, trust me: this still has absolutely nothing to do with us as the performers. If we look them in the eye and tell them a reason or reasons why they should not joyfully anticipate what we are about to give them, we are immediately and irreversibly giving them the message that we are "not ready for them to see and hear our work, not ready for them to respond to our work, and not ready for our work to be out there."
This obviously is not the message we are intending to send if we have previously made the decision to show up for the audition, show up for the performance, or show up for the class knowing what was expected of us.
Friends, The Work (with a Capital W) is The Work. The Work speaks for itself.
No matter what we say before or after we present our work to others, the work will have done the more important talking. We simply can't avoid this. When people listen to us, whether they know it or not, they are listening for more than just the finished sound on the surface. They are listening for what relationship we have formed with the work. They are listening for choices that we have made along the way in forming that relationship with the work. They are figuring out if we understand the work and if our choice to form a relationship with that work was a clear and informed choice. They are (more often than not) excited to be invited into that personal space between us and the work and don't want to be told we actually "don't want them in here." If we "don't want them in here," then we can't expect them to want to "be in here."
Although every single point on the list above is absolutely a part of this, a few things in particular can be emphasized:
#2. Work Ethic
Work Ethic is not what we think it is. To me, it doesn't mean working "harder" or "longer" than someone else. It doesn't mean having more stamina or drive than someone else. It means making it our business to know what we have to offer to the world and concertedly putting ourselves in front of those people who we believe might need us. After all, if we find out who those people are, we need them too. A professional relationship like this is mutually beneficial and less likely to be wrought with resentment and heartache in the long run. If we are cats trying repeatedly to enter ourselves in the dog show, this will continue to be futile because we are expecting others to change without first looking at ourselves and knowing clearly what we can offer.
#4. Body Language
Body Language speaks circles around what words come out of our mouth. If you don't believe me, listen to the brilliant sociologist, Amy Cuddy, give her amazing TED Talk about it.
#9. Doing Extra and #10. Being Prepared
Logic tells us that if, because of Fight or Flight, we could stand to lose as much as 60% of what we have prepared when we go to present our work in front of others, we need to prepare an extra 60% above the amount we would prepare to achieve 100%. This is not to say that preparation is all of it. Work Ethic, Body Language, choice of material well-suited for us, and choice of who to present this material to are all working in tandem to help us achieve our success. Further still, some factors of success in these situations are out of our control because we can't control other people or their states of mind or their life circumstances at the moments they are sitting down to hear us present our work. This, of course, opens a whole other topic which I'll have to cover in a different post later on.
All of this said, nothing speaks louder about us as musicians than our work, itself. There is a reason that music transcends barriers of time and space, language, culture, geography, age, gender, and so on. It doesn't need our words accompanying it to effectively say what it has to say. If we add our words, this becomes a part of the work as a whole. In fact, when composers began to do this, the text presented in a printed program served to do exactly that: to dilate the sensibilities of the piece and to heighten enjoyment of it. That type of accompanying information is clearly not the type of talk I speak of here. The type of talk I speak of here includes statements like this:
"You'll have to forgive me. I am still getting over a nasty cold and I'm not sure what it's going to do to my singing."
"I really didn't want to sing this particular song for you, but it's all I have ready."
"I'm pretty sure this is going to suck, but I guess I'll try."
"I haven't played this in months. Here goes!"
You wouldn't believe some of the things people have said to me as an addendum to their work. Why in the world do we do this? If we are professional or even serious avocational musicians, we have already worked extremely hard and against some of the greatest odds a person could face in their career path to get where we are in this moment. We have invested our time, our money, our energy, and more into this work.
Why not just let that work and all it took to get here in this moment speak for itself? Isn't that enough? If that's not enough, or if we are not ready in this moment for any reason, why make the choice to present the work in front of others to begin with?
Just my truth. Take it or leave it.