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How to succeed in music with really trying

AS a music critic and a teacher, I am occasionally called upon to evaluate a young person's readiness for musical study, or suitability for a musical career. I do this in the privacy of my studio, but I also adjudicate music competitions. I am amazed sometimes at the sense of mystery that surrounds the evaluation of talent, and how easy it would be just to conclude that it is simply a ``gift from God.'' Some musicians have the ability to ``grab'' the listener, and succeed with modest musical gifts, where others with far greater genius and accomplishment must work twice as hard to generate audience enthusiasm. Careers often rise and fall on details of personality and performance that have only a tangential relation to Mozart, Brahms, and Beethoven.

I am increasingly convinced that there is no single overriding aspect of a person that can be called musical talent; there are many musical talents. And the best musical careers are those built on the basis of possession and best use of these many talents, or personal attributes. With this theory in mind, I sat down one day and made a working list of these attributes I consider essential for a solo career in music:

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1.One should have a highly charged emotional sensibility; a sense of drama; a ``feel'' for the emotional properties of specific audiences.

2.One should have a highly sensitive ear for the hearing of tone, the arrangement and permutation of tones, timbres, and harmonies, and the aural memory to see musical notation and be able to imagine performed results. (For example, a conductor looks at a page of score, and imagines what it will sound like played by the orchestra.)

3.One should have a lightning-fast digital dexterity and nervous system, resilient in the face of unexpected events, which is consciously controlled under stress in public performance.

4.One should have a more accurate sense of the passage of time, and the rhythmic division of time, than exists in the general population. (This attribute can be greatly developed, during study.)

5.One should have a strong desire to excel, coupled with a stubborn persistence, in order to master a musical instrument, to maintain skills, and to advance as a professional.

6.One should have a passion for the music itself: its poetry, its function as a symbolic expression of emotional states, its expression of beauty.

7.One should have the ability to see new and alternate relations in a given arrangement of phenomena.

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8.One should have a feel for the aural shape of music in the context of time, both in terms of form and emotional expression. (The great pianist can differ from the good pianist in perhaps a 20th-of-a-second pause before the next note, which gives it another dimension of meaning.)

9.One should have a well-balanced temperament, an optimistic nature not easily discouraged by frustration. (The person who is too much at the mercy of emotionalism or sensitivity will waste too much of his nervous energy fighting it, before and during a performance.)

10.One should have a strong belief in the uniqueness of one's ability to interpret music meaningfully to an audience.

11.One should have an ability to commit to a life of unceasing effort, insecurity, and discipline, and an ever-moving horizon of success. Musicians never really arrive; they just keep going.

12.It helps to have the physical constitution of a crocodile, to survive the logistical stresses of a concert career: travel, bad food, terrible hours on tour.

Most of these qualities can be honed and strengthened by musical study and performing experience, if they exist in significant measure in the person. A musician can have all these attributes, but still miss a major career through lack of good fortune. But in the best of artists, these attributes galvanize, in performance, into a single functional whole, which is the totality of the artist himself. When that happens, he is noticed; he sticks out like a sport, an anomaly, a different bloom in an experimental field of flowers.

You may notice that I did not include a keen sense of competition in my list of attributes. An overriding sense of competition can burn one out early, just as easily as it can spur one on. It can make one too concerned about the opinions of others, until one can no longer hear the small voice of his own uniqueness.

Pianist Barry Douglas won the Tchaikowsky Competition in Moscow in 1986 not simply because he was better. His avowed goal in performance - any performance - is the most clear and revealing expression of the music. His expression was, and is, unique.

There are many available careers in classical music, beyond the pinnacle of soloist. The vast number of teachers, symphony players, chamber musicians, and paramusical administrators attests to that. But if you were born with the dream to be the featured soloist, and you have the many talents needed, as well as the drive to realize a classical career, more power to you. The public is waiting to hear you.

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