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The key to lifelong growth

This week while I was in residence at Michigan State University, I had a student come up to me and ask a great question: What can I do after I graduate to continue growing as a musician?

It’s a question every professional should ask, and especially those of us in the arts: our artistry continually grows and evolves throughout our lives (at least, hopefully it does). And so we need to consciously develop the habits and practices that will facilitate that growth and sustain us over the span of our careers.

I didn’t hesitate in my answer: Surround yourself with people who will challenge you.

It’s very easy to fall into a trap of complacency, especially once we’ve reached a level of proficiency that is sufficient to serve our professional activities. But if you look at any artist considered to be “great,” the idea of being “sufficient” is a non-starter. They are continually striving to improve their craft, to gain new insights into their art, to better convey their artistic ideas, and so forth. Certainly self-motivation is an important part of this life-long process of growth and improvement, but we also need objective voices outside ourselves to give us feedback, to encourage us, and, when necessary, tell us the cold truths we might be blind to or resist hearing. In short, you need at least one person who knows you and respects you enough to give you frank, insightful feedback.

My answer to that student probably came to me as quickly as it did because I had just been thinking about it during my residency, which included a performance of my Symphony No. 1: Formations. Now bear in mind that this is a piece that’s already had multiple performances; the tweaks and corrections are largely over. But the conductor of the MSU Symphony, Kevin Noe, is one of the people I’m privileged to have in my life who will always challenge me to be better – and he suggested two cuts in the 4th movement he thought would make the flow and momentum of that movement, and indeed the entire symphony, better.

So he suggested the cuts. And though I initially rejected them, I didn’t do so out of hand: I’d learned over 25 years of friendship and collaboration that Kevin’s suggestions deserved my careful consideration. Ultimately, though, I convinced myself that I was right to keep those passages intact. I respectfully turned him down.

But that’s not where the story ends. He continued to press, because he was passionately convinced that the cuts would improve the music. And here is where we come to what I think is an important lesson for all of us – not just composers, but performers and conductors as well. And it’s this: the only thing that matters in the end is the music and the audience’s experience of it. Anything that serves those ends should be considered and embraced, and anything that degrades those things should be rejected.

This can be easier said than done, of course. We have egos after all. And we’re attached to the things we create – I’m fond of the measures in question, and I didn’t want to erase them. And of course people of good will can disagree, too (another suggestion Kevin has made regarding the symphony I have spent a tremendous amount of time considering…and have ultimately rejected). But after thinking about it for a day earlier this week, and then sleeping on it, I decided it was worth trying in rehearsal: if I liked the cuts, they could stay; if I didn’t, we could easily restore the original music. I was willing to risk an experiment, even if it meant conceding that my initial resistance was misplaced.

And so we ran the piece with the cuts, all the while being sure to maintain a dispassionate, objective ear to what I was hearing. When all was said and done, I realized that the first cut (and the bigger of the two) was indeed an improvement. I also felt that the second cut was too extreme – but I had gained some insight into where my friend was coming from in suggesting it. I realized a modified cut was in order, and made those changes in time for the final rehearsal.

I felt this was a lesson worth sharing. All too often, our own egos and insecurities prevent such scenarios from going down – to the detriment of both the music and the audience’s experience of it. We must always remember that none of this is about us personally – not me as a composer, not the musicians as performers, and not the conductor as the leader of the group. All of these considerations are secondary to our sense of service to the music and the audience. Maintaining this as our highest priority can mean tough choices for us; it can mean changing (or eliminating) something we really like. It can mean speaking up and possibly hurting someone’s feelings. And it can be risky – because it may involve trying something new or departing from what we know best. But when we remember that we are servants to a higher master – that of the art itself – it makes these challenges a little easier to face.

In the case of my symphony this week, the result has been a better piece of music – which makes the angst of the decision worth it in the end. Without a colleague willing to help me be better, it’s a decision that never would have happened.

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