The Student of Today: Part 3 (Technology and Being a Musician / Entrepreneur

When I was a student at UCLA in Los Angeles and would play some sort of outside gig with a professional, I would occasionally be told, “When I was your age, things were much tougher for students and musicians.”  I have no idea if they were right, but the implication was that back in “those days,” the players who succeeded somehow had more character.  I think this attitude will always prevail with some older players, but my own opinion these days is just the opposite: the music business is far more difficult for the young player of today than it was during my time as a student.

There are several reasons for this.  The level of playing overall seems to be higher, which of course means there is much more competition for that one position everyone wants. And I think it is obvious to anyone looking at the music business that the profession is having real problems.  Just look at how many orchestras are struggling and how many have failed.  It is easy to point a finger at the financial crisis of 2008 or incompetent management, but, even taking those factors into account, the traditional music business is in decline.

This is what the student of today faces, and it is not a pretty picture.  There is more and better competition, and the job market is shrinking. You don’t have to be a math genius to see that the numbers are not encouraging.  However, there is a positive side to this story if students are willing to be proactive and take responsibility not only for their performance level but also for their career.  And so that is why I think I had it relatively easy when I was a student: basically, all I thought about was to practice a lot and try to get better.  I didn’t have to worry about developing a career; I just had to do well on the job and in various auditions.

But today’s student must also be an entrepreneur. And that means using today’s technology not only to develop a career but to also to expand learning and knowledge.

LEARNING AND KNOWLEDGE

I think we live in an incredibly exciting time. It’s a time when we can think of a question and get an answer immediately, a time when we can think of a certain world class performer and read more about that performer online or hear performances and interviews, a time when we can make connections with almost anybody around the world.  Think about that for a minute. It is amazing!

Here are just a few ideas about how technology can help a person learn more about music (or anything in life).

Internet

As I write this, Google is still the biggest search engine, and it is possible to learn so many things through Google.  If you are in doubt about something, just Google it.  You will find not only an answer, but possibly other approaches to that question as well.  And there are times when you can go directly to the source, if you just have the courage to do so.  Several years ago a student of mine, Eddie Ludema, had some questions about a wonderful, substantial piece he was working on, Masks for Trumpet and Piano, by Dana Wilson.  I wasn’t sure I could give Eddie a  knowledgeable answer to his questions so I said, “Why don’t you find Wilson’s email address and ask him?”  Eddie said he would not feel comfortable doing that, I said he should, and after a short discussion Eddie grudgingly said he would do it. (Even in this new age of technology the teacher almost always wins.)  So Eddie sent an email and got a very nice and thoughtful response from the composer.  That could not have happened even in the fairly recent past.

In addition to being able use search engines and contact performers, agents, and composers, I would suggest going on as many websites as possible, and especially websites of your favorites performers or composers.  Ask yourself: What do these websites have in common, and how are they different?  By going on the websites of your favorite artists, you can gain valuable insight into the way they think and approach music.  As an example, since I am a teacher of trumpet and brass chamber music, here are a couple of websites that I think are very insightful:

www.jayfriedman.net (articles)

www.thomasstevensmusic.com (quotables)

YouTube

YouTube presents many opportunities for learning.  Type in your favorite artist, click on the first thing you see, and not only can you hear a great performance, piece, or interview; you will see that there are other YouTube videos that you can watch.  Not only can you hear your favorite artist of today; you can also view historical performances, such as Shostakovich playing his Piano Concerto in 1934, Hindemith conducting the Chicago Symphony in 1963, and so on.  Here are a couple of my own favorites:

* Bernstein: Folk Music (1/6), beginning around minute 3: In the next few minutes Leonard Bernstein explains how different languages influence music and phrasing, and this short explanation is probably more valuable and thoughtful than a semester-long music course in college.

*Will Smith Inspiration (minute 3 – Building a Wall), and NBS 2011 Artist Panel: Tom Hooten. Combine these two, and you have a great approach to practicing effectively.

* Keeping Score: Shostakovich Symphony 5 or Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring: These are examples by Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony of extremely well produced and recorded programs that give tremendous insight into the making of great music.

The possibilities are endless, and every day presents an opportunity to learn something new and valuable.

DEVELOPING A CAREER

Although in the future there will no doubt be fewer opportunities for traditional employment, the new technology is creating far more opportunities, if one is willing to be creative, take chances, and sometimes think outside the box.  Technology is expanding rapidly, and to show how quickly things change, Tom Friedman, who in 2004 wrote the iconic bestselling book about globalization, The World Is Flat, recently went back to that book as research for a new book and checked in his index for Facebook.  To his surprise, he couldn’t find it! Friedman says that we have gone from being connected to being hyperconnected, and he states that in 2004, “Facebook didn’t exist, Twitter was still a sound, the cloud was still in the sky, 4G was a parking place, LinkedIn was where you went to prison, applications were what you sent to college, and SKYPE was a typo.”  And that covers only the last ten years.  Imagine what our world will be like ten years from now.

Since so much is now out there, I will address only the two topics I discussed before.

Internet

One possibility for furthering one’s career is to use Facebook as a way of reaching people.  A great number of people already use Facebook and other social media to be in touch with one another, and quite often it seems as though these sites present opportunities only for how to waste time and become shallow.  But social media can also provide a way of getting your message “out there.”  I think an even better use of the Internet is to have a website.  Most students think they haven’t developed enough to need a website, but I disagree.  A website doesn’t have to be used only for high-profile concerts or commissions.  It can also be used as a way to get wedding gigs, explore private teaching opportunities, and so forth.  And as a career progresses, the website can always be revised and expanded.  Websites can be expensive, but if you are a college student these days, you almost surely know someone who is tech-savvy and would love to build a website for a friend at a nominal fee.

YouTube

As I stated earlier, YouTube is a fantastic way of learning.  But it can also be used as a way of getting yourself heard by people who would normally not have the chance.  An extreme example of this is the pianist Valentina Lesitsa, who turned a career that was on hold into one that has soared.  To anybody interested in using YouTube for career enhancement, I would suggest Googling the following: Valentina Lisitsa, the pianist who won the Internet.  She is an exception, but some of the principles apply to everyone. Your video doesn’t have to be glitzy, but it should look professional and of high quality.

In conclusion, the student of today must be better, smarter, and more creative than the student of yesterday.  This may seem daunting, and indeed it is.  But if a student is willing to take up the challenge, then it can lead to unlimited possibilities for growth.  Now, much more than ever, a student’s future lies in their own hands.  It will be increasingly easy to blame failure on circumstances — the economy is terrible, orchestras are dying, the music business is corrupt, and so on.  But the student who succeeds in the future will use these negatives as a starting point  on the way to future growth and an inspiring career in music.