There are gaps in the way many young musicians are educated today. On the one hand the cultivation of deeper issues of musicianship are often neglected. Instrumental teachers mostly fail to stress the need for students to base an interpretation of the music they work on, both intuitively and consciously, on the harmony, rhythm and contrapuntal texture found in the score. The development of critical listening skills is only minimally addressed, if at all, in many private studios. At the same time practical issues of professionalism are also nearly always neglected in the training of the next generation of musicians.
The focus is normally directed almost exclusively to instrumental proficiency, at the expense of more global musical and professional values. The result of this pattern of training is an army of instrumental automatons who can perform technical tasks on their instruments with a high degree of acrobatic acumen, but possess little in the way of musical intelligence and flexibility. Many of these people win orchestra jobs on the basis of their acrobatic skill and join the ranks of musicians who must either quickly make up for the gaps in their education or pay the penalty for those gaps when they fail to be given tenure.
When speaking of professional efficacy, there can be little debate about the issues. Aspiring young musicians should learn the basics of professionalism from the expectations set for them in collegiate life, if not before:
- Consideration for colleagues and general citizenship
- Seriousness of attitude
These things must be taught and modeled rigorously by professors in order for the need for them to appear credible to students. As a teacher, failure to consistently demand and model all of these things is a slippery slope toward confusion and lower standards for students. Ultimately more students will fail in professional life without the demand for and modeling of professionalism in their student life.
Modeling alone does not provide enough information for students to learn by. Instructors need to be specific about what students must do to be effective their professional lives. I advocate these teaching principles:
- Arrive early always! When someone is paying a musician to play, they are paying for the Musician’s best playing. one’s best playing doesn’t happen until a musician is fully warmed up. Being certain of arriving early enough to be fully warmed up means anticipating that there will be traffic jams, delays with public transportation and other unforeseen trouble, and compensating for all of those things through careful planning and vigilant time management.
- Over-prepared is only just prepared enough. Musicians should assume that the piece is harder than they think it is. As soon as a musician first knows that they will be playing a particular piece, they should single-mindedly focus on tracking down the music, a score and if possible a recording, until they have all of the material in hand and can begin working on it. Daily practice aimed at faithful execution of the part, and serious study of the score and listening to recordings must become an integral part of their daily routine right up to the moment they walk out on stage to perform. To do less is to sell oneself short professionally.
- Professionalism requires thoroughness. It is easier to go to work on a piece that one really enjoys. True professionals do not leave editorial gaps in their preparation. Students should be taught to work on the pieces they like less first, and leave the favored work for last.
- Sensitivity towards one’s colleagues is critical to the success and happiness of a professional musician. In the symphonic world it is critical that musicians avoid anything that could be construed as showing off or interfering with another’s ability to be ready to play. Wailing on the concerto du jour while everyone else is warming up before a rehearsal or concert is a huge faux pas that can cost a young professional ongoing engagement. No one is impressed with such antics but rather they are annoyed at having their workspace disrupted. Symphonic work is not about heroic instrumental prowess; it is about solid and reliable professionalism. Warm up discreetly on the material to be covered in the rehearsal or performance. Respect the needs of others to do the same and do nothing that would interfere. Once the rehearsal or performance starts, no symphonic musician need prove any points about how well they are playing or how they actually think the piece should go. Rather, they should endeavor to play in a way that integrates best with their section and the orchestra. All staff people should be treated with respect and dignity; without them the show cannot go on.
- Be serious. At the next party one can be beloved as a clown; the workplace should be about business. This does not mean that one must be completely dry, but it is better to err on the serious side when one is being paid for one’s time and effort.
A student should matriculate well-informed of these issues, and with the habit-strength to carry them out.
A couple of anecdotes serve as examples:
- Case Study #1:
- Based on his dexterity on the violin as demonstrated in an informal audition, one recent graduate was invited to play as a sometime substitute member of a major symphony’s second violin section, a highly lucrative opportunity for a young freelance musician. All week this fledgling symphonic professional slipped into his seat on stage for rehearsal and performance at the last possible moment. He was on time by the clock, but by no means on time for the profession. What he didn’t know was that during the breaks after each time he arrived at the last minute, members of the orchestra across the stage were speaking with the principal of his section about the substitute’s last minute antics. In effect the colleagues of the section principal were the eyes in the back of the principal’s head, as his back was always turned when the young player was tardily slipping into his chair. In most situations the new substitute musician would have been summarily dumped from the substitute list without any explanation. In this case he was given a clear set of guidelines for professional decorum including the need for him to arrive early enough to be at his best for the downbeat. The young player modified his behavior but proceeded to arrive early and hang around backstage playing major concerti loudly. Once again the principal of the section pulled him aside and gave him a heads-up. In the end the lessons were learned, but they should have come from his teachers during his collegiate experience instead of his superiors in the workplace.
- Case Study #2:
- A cellist newly-arrived as a freelancer in a large city happened to meet a local major conductor. Some interaction followed in which the cellist had the opportunity to display integrity, seriousness and promptness in preparation for rehearsals and performances of a fledgling concert series. Some weeks later the conductor found himself with an opening in a prestigious major venue and immediately thought of the newly-arrived cellist. Although he had not been in town even six months, the new cellist was hired for this high visibility work because his exemplary professionalism had quickly won over the conductor.
Just as students must be expected to demand professionalism of themselves, we as instructors must demand the same of ourselves in order to foster this kind of professional integrity in our students through specific instruction and rigorous adherence to principles that are only self-evident to seasoned veterans.