The Road to "Success"

by Weston Sprott

Originally published to WestonSprott.com



Q:

I was just curious, what are some of the things you did while in school/pre-MET, that you credit the most with your tremendous success? I'm sure even you had these thoughts when you were in school, that you realize how ridiculously slim the chances are of landing the dream job. I just turned 20 years old, and am feeling like it's really hitting me hard that in just a few years, I'll be out taking any audition I can (I'll definitley be using that audition article you wrote).

I fully believe that I have the ability to accomplish my ultimate goal of an orchestra gig, but sometimes I lack confidence in my ways of practicing. Is it as simple as "the harder I work the luckier I seem to be" or is it more than that?

Thank you for your time, and I hope someday soon to meet you.

Best wishes,

XXXXXXXXX


A:

First of all, thanks for writing in, and I'm glad that you liked the audition article. I suppose "tremendous success" in our business is sometimes defined as having won a major orchestral audition and then securing tenure in said orchestra. For anyone who has taken a major orchestra audition, you know how difficult it is to win one! Having said that, I recall that one of my heroes, Wynton Marsalis, once said, "Beating someone has never been the basis for knowing anything." In fact, in my case, winding up in the winner's circle has basically served as a license to start learning more in a way that is thorough and not forced. If you're a go-getter, when you are 20, there is little time for fun and games and thorough exploration of the finer nuances of many things. Rather, the goal is to climb to the mountaintop as quickly as possible and master the things necessary to get a job. Once you have the security of a job, you're freed from the constant search for validation (and food!) and you can focus your energy on broadening your knowledge base in the way that you think is most valuable, rather than in the ways that are most valued by an audition committee. 

As to your questions, I definitely realized how slim the chances were of becoming a "successful" trombone player. It is a very difficult business to make a good living in, and by no means do I want to sugar coat that reality for anyone. I am a firm believer that there is always room at the top, however. If you're willing to put in the time and effort, seek out the appropriate help and be brutally critical of yourself, I think there is a place for you. The thing is, not many people are willing to put themselves through this for several years. You also have to be prepared to accept failures. Many people don't have thick enough skin to persevere through that adversity and keep getting stronger. 

I think the things I would credit most for my having a career are the following...


1. Hard work - 

This includes all the things you always hear about. Nothing new here. No shortcuts. Practice slowly with a metronome, tuner, a recording device and a brutally honest set of ears. The recording device is probably the most important tool you have. If you can't stomach listening to yourself, well, who are you kidding?


2. Surrounding myself constantly with like minded peers - 

The whole iron sharpens iron concept is real. Get around people who have similar goals and similar, if not better, skill sets. I went to high school and college with a "Who's Who" list of players in the world's great orchestras. They are far too many to mention here, but I assure you that the list is astonishing. Not only that, but it seems like several times a year, others I was in school with add themselves to that list. The old adage "birds of a feather flock together" is definitely true in music. There are some books out there that address the phenomenon of talent hotbeds. The Talent Code by David Coyle is a good place to start. People say that it's crazy that Nitzan Haroz, Ko-Ichiro Yamamoto, Demian Austin, James Markey, etc were all at Juilliard at the same time. That's not some miraculous coincidence or lightning in a bottle, in my opinion. My time at Curtis was similar in many ways. You want to be the best? Find other people that also want to be the best. Motivate them. Be motivated by them. Push them. Be pushed by them. It works. 


3. Consistently going to performances by the Philadelphia Orchestra - 

In three years at Curtis, I missed three subscription weeks of performances by the Philadelphia Orchestra. You have to keep yourself in constant contact with the standard. If you want to a pro, gain an intimate knowledge of what the pros sound like, in real time. There's no replacement for this. The greatest musical learning generally doesn't happen in a vacuum or in an ivory tower. You have to seek it out in a real live performance venue. I knew what it would take to play in an orchestra like Philadelphia because I heard them EVERY week. Listening is at least half of a good music performance education. I can't even begin to understand why so many students think they can succeed at the highest levels without this. I'm sure there is an exception to the rule out there, but how many people can you think of that got a great job in an orchestra who didn't at some point spend a significant amount of time in one of the world's cultural centers?


4. Great teachers - 

ALL of my teachers were awesome. I had the good fortune of just luckily falling into the right hands. I make a point to thank these guys, in particular Michael Warny, Carl Lenthe and Nitzan Haroz as often as I can. I'll never forget what they did for me. There are a lot of other good teachers out there too. Make sure you find them, with the emphasis on them being a plural. There is no one person with a monopoly on sound advice. Keep your eyes and your ears open. If you have a teacher that doesn't think it's a good idea for you to also get advice from other people, get a new teacher. Prod your teachers for information. Dig it out of them. Don't be a passive student who expects everything to be delivered to you. Be proactive about asking questions and being forward with the insecurities you have in your playing. These are the people that can ensure you're not just working hard, but working smart.


5. Exposure - 

You have to know what's out there. Don't sit at home and waste away all summer. Travel. Go to summer music festivals and seminars. Hear as many concerts as you can. Meet as many people as you can. As with the teachers, you can't learn everything in one place. Get out of the house. Get out of your state. Get out of your country. Learn about places, cultures, players and concepts that you otherwise would have no exposure to. 


6. Failure -

 People learn through failure. You learn to walk by consistently getting up after you fall. You learn to win auditions by first getting cut in the first round, then the second, then the last, then the first or second again. You have to have a stomach for failure. If you don't, try something else, and you'll probably experience some failures there too! Nothing worthwhile comes easily. So, if you want to get really good at anything, get ready for some tears and sleepless nights. Look no further than the lyrics of the late James Brown, which were later expanded upon by Rick Ross and Snoop Dogg....


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