The constant quest for the unattainable, or Being a Professional Musician

Over the last few months I’ve been delighted to discover great interest in what goes on behind the scenes at the symphony, especially in regards to the auditions I described last month. That has made me think about the bigger picture: what exactly leads some of us to become professional musicians, and what’s it like living the dream?

It starts in childhood. I have friends who remember the first time they held a violin and immediately felt a tactile connection with the instrument and its sound, and others who can’t remember a time when they didn’t sit in front of the piano every day. My earliest memories are before I played an instrument – of music itself – which is perhaps why I chose to be a conductor. I remember the overwhelming effect of music at church; even a simple song or hymn could make my hair stand on end and my spirit soar (I can still sit at the piano for hours mesmerized by a succession of simple chords). As soon as I could play a few notes I was tormenting my extended family before Sunday lunch, organizing little concerts during which I ‘directed’ the singing. And of course, like most musicians, I had a constant stream of music in my head that has never stopped.

If you ask musicians about a defining moment in their lives, nine times out of ten they will tell you about performing with others. For me, singing in a choir, and later playing in an orchestra, were the most exciting things of all. The feeling of being in the middle of music – of it happening all around you – is something I still crave. One of the most potent memories of my childhood is singing Benjamin Britten’s cantata Rejoice in the Lamb with my school choir when I was ten. The music sets a text by Christopher Smart, an eighteenth century poet of a brilliant but unsound mind. Smart wrote his words in an asylum, and they are full of fantastic images of cats and other animals worshipping God, of the devil lurking in the corner of a cell ready to pounce, of the letters of the alphabet praising the earth’s beauty. Britten’s music does justice to all this and is in turn exalting and terrifying.

Most kids who love music realise pretty quickly they have a different relationship to it from everyone else. I don’t remember thinking about becoming a professional musician until I was a teenager, but by then I had practised the piano and clarinet for hours every day and attended thousands of choir, orchestra and band rehearsals – time when everyone else was playing football or watching TV. Music demands a commitment that we are willing to give because for many of us it is one of the most important things in life. The reality of sacrifice starts early.

As a teenager, everything gets much more serious. Either you are surrounded by other talented musicians and are already accustomed to the intense competition that marks a musical career, or you live in splendid isolation with your peers thinking you are rather peculiar. My experience was the latter, for which I’m grateful. Conducting is a lonely business, and figuring things out for yourself is important.

Young musicians need role models. In Jacksonville, the symphony musicians and the Jacksonville Symphony Youth Orchestra provide an excellent support system. In Belfast, I studied with a clarinettist from the Ulster Orchestra. He was the first teacher who talked about music beyond the technicalities of playing it. He made me think about how I phrased each line, how the speed at which I began affected the structure of a whole movement, of what character I was projecting. These are the kinds of questions a conductor asks himself all the time. Only professional musicians can give aspiring youngsters the kind of courage they need to consider taking the leap of applying to university or conservatory.

At the same time, it’s good to face a little resistance. I had an inspiring music teacher at high school. Despite his enormous influence, he never encouraged me to pursue music. Years later I asked him why and he said, ‘To make a career in music, you have to want to do it so badly that you can’t imagine doing anything else. And you have to have the motivation to make it happen yourself, otherwise you will fail.’ Truer words were never spoken.

So, an aspiring musician goes off to university or music college where he studies and practises non-stop, then goes to graduate school and does it all over again, and then starts taking auditions. This is where a conductor’s path diverges from an instrumentalist’s. When talented instrumentalists leave college, they are technically proficient and basically ready to play in a major orchestra. Imagine how different it is for a conductor. He (or too infrequently, she) has conducted student orchestras, but probably has never stood in front of professionals. Now he is faced with an audition with a major orchestra (my first was the Budapest Festival Orchestra), and has to convince them he’s competent despite having absolutely no idea what they need from him. Whereas the instrumentalist has his technical competence to hide his musical deficiencies, the conductor has only his fledgling musical ideas to shield himself from his total technical incompetence. How could it be any other way since he hasn’t had an opportunity to conduct professionals before? It’s like the Woody Allen film in which he says, quite seriously, ‘Actually, I’m one of the world’s greatest lovers, but normally I only get to practice on my own.’

So to daily life in an orchestra. There is the thrill of performing the music you love with other great musicians, and the feeling of being a part of this enormous flood of sound. For the players there is also the challenge of being just one of eighty musicians. I can’t think of any other profession where so many incredibly talented people have to subsume their own opinions for the greater good. And there is the challenge of maintaining your playing at the very highest level.

Conducting is the most rewarding job I can imagine. The artistic leadership of a great orchestra is an enormous challenge and responsibility, but it’s also endlessly fascinating both on a musical and human level. Perhaps the greatest struggle all musicians face is the impossibility of ever attaining our artistic goals. When I study a score, I’m searching for something I can’t even describe. I’m constantly aware both of my own limitations and of the giants who have traversed the same musical terrain in such awesome fashion before me.

If I were ever satisfied, the game would be over. Arriving at a convincing interpretation is only the beginning for a conductor: next comes the very enjoyable but rarely easy task of inspiring and rehearsing the orchestra, before bringing it all together and somehow making it more than the sum of its parts in the performance. Every now and then, we can step back and say, ‘We did that well.’ But only briefly. The closest I can come to describing the life of a professional musician is as the constant quest for the unattainable. But what a quest!

Reproduced with kind permission from The Florida Times-Union.

One thought on “The constant quest for the unattainable, or Being a Professional Musician”

  1. Beautifully articulated! The goals most worth striving for are always unattainable. I believe that is because in them we seek the realization of our own potentials, also a perpetual adventure.

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