If you’re aspiring to make a career out of music, I’m sure this thought has crossed your mind: How do I get discovered?
For as much as we love music for its own sake, it’s easy for musicians to become consumed with what others think about the music we make. We think that if only we can earn the stamp of approval from a noteworthy name, the rest of our career will magically fall into place. But is that really true? And with so many great musicians out there, how can any one artist hope to snag the attention of the critics and audiences?
Let’s go straight to the source – this week, we shine the spotlight on Anne Midgette, chief classical music critic for the Washington Post and author of The Classical Beat. Get her “review” of the path to a fruitful career in music:
ROC: Most aspiring artists dream of their first review in a major newspaper. Is that review really the pivotal key to success it’s cracked up to be?
AM: I think the review only plays a real role if it’s an unqualified rave from someone not prone to raving. And even then there are no guarantees – I can think of a couple of artists off the top of my head who got amazing debut reviews in the New York Times whom you probably haven’t heard of. There are so many factors at play in creating a career that the review is no more than a part of a larger picture. But a savvy publicist and/or manager can certainly use a good review as leverage with presenters.
I always warn young artists about putting too much emphasis on any review. Think of it as a tool that may or may not be useful, but try not to get hung up on what some stranger has written about you in the paper.
ROC: The music world is filled with musicians playing the same music, in the same venues and for similar audiences. What are two or three things that make a musician or ensemble stand out to you as having something worth paying attention to?
AM: I think all of us who love music are looking for the same thing – something really good! I often tell the story of being sent one weekend, very reluctantly, to review a “Magic Flute” at the Mannes School: a production of an overfamiliar opera by New York’s third conservatory. Well, it was wonderful – so wonderful that I’m still talking about it years later – simply because it was a young, eager cast really putting their hearts into what they were doing.
The trick, of course, is getting the critic in the door, and to do that, I’m sorry to say that it does help to perform something unusual or newsworthy. Left to my own devices, I would never have gone to that “Magic Flute” – which is exactly why New York’s conservatories often stage less-known operas.
ROC: In a world brimming with fresh talent, building a name and an audience is no easy task. What’s the biggest mistake you see emerging artists making in the attempt to launch their careers?
AM: Well, if I never read another artist bio that begins “Jane Doe is emerging as one of the most important artists of her generation,” it will be too soon, but that’s not always the artist’s fault. I think paradoxically one of the things that can trip people up is worrying too much about what people like me will think. It’s hard to tell young artists “Be true to yourself,” since when one’s young one is often still figuring out who one is, but I know I am put off when I sense that someone’s following a template.
Many young artists come to conceive of a career as a set of rules: you learn in conservatory that you have to play a certain way, behave a certain way, do certain things: you must learn to talk to the audience, you must be entrepreneurial. All of these rules can provide useful information, but nobody wants to see or hear a performance that amounts to no more than following the rules. And I have, unfortunately, seen a number of those from young artists over the years.
ROC: Most musicians would say that the reason they make music is to express something beyond words and to connect on a profound level with other human beings. What does this kind of communication mean to you – what is necessary to achieve it?
AM: What’s necessary is first, to forget about all that high-falutin’ stuff about trying to express your feelings. Music is too good to serve merely as a vehicle of our own personal agendas. Leon Fleisher, with whom I recently wrote a book, has some wonderful things to say about getting rid of your emotions in performance and focusing on the music. I remember advice I got once years ago from a mentor: “Don’t try to write a great book. Just write the book you’re going to write.” I’d say the same thing to musicians: Don’t aim at profundity or Great Emotion. Just play Mozart, or Berg, or Philip Glass, as well as you can, and let the profundity take care of itself.
ROC: You’ve undoubtedly attended hundreds (thousands?) of concerts as a critic and listener. Can you share a favorite concert and tell us in a few words why it remains so memorable?
AM: It’s been my privilege, over the years, to hear a lot of wonderful music, and it’s hard to pick just a couple of memories. But certainly one of my most magical musical experiences was hearing Kurt Masur conduct the Leipzig Gewandhaus in the Bruckner 7th in the church at St. Florian’s, the monastery where Bruckner was organist for year, in the centennial year of Bruckner’s death. Between the setting and the power of the music and the symbiosis Masur and the Gewandhaus had at that point, it seemed to me a perfect performance, and it was the first time the final movement of that symphony fully made sense to me: like sun breaking through after a storm. I have to restrain myself from listing another half-dozen highlights…
Be excellent – be unique.
Learn the rules – and break them, too.
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