It’s easy to give ourselves a hard time about not being more successful as composers, musicians, writers, and artists. And this perception is often rooted in our self-regard and not in reality as others may see us. That is, we may have scored many successes but not perceive them as such. I used to become jealous, mildly enraged, or depressed by the success of others, and also engaged in petty schadenfreude when someone was perceived to have failed. I figure that’s why many “news” items detail the slips, failures, and inevitable aging of public figures; it enables us to compare ourselves to those once considered successful in a favorable light.
I’ve known some artists who were continually angry or at least frustrated by the cards they were dealt; one was a visual artist who had actually had a full show at the Whitney, a Guggenheim Fellowship, photos published in national magazines, and a monograph written by a highly respected art historian. Another was a composer who has had performances by a number of major orchestras. I told the artist that he wouldn’t be content until he had a Pulitzer, and the other confided in me that the day that they announced the Pulitzer each year wasn’t a very good day for him.
Somewhere along the line I decided that I was going to strive to avoid bitterness about my own career and (at least try) to appreciate what I have. Not all artists start with the same paint box of abilities, family support, timely teachers, and inspiring surroundings. But those of us who are composing and creating actively have at least found the success of drive, desire, and an inner strength to persist, no matter what our background is.
Recently, when they announced that the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was going to Frances Arnold, she was interviewed on NPR about receiving the life-changing phone call early one morning. I found myself envious of that experience, until I rationalized that her success is actually my success and a success for all of us. Her advances in her field are our advances. I never felt jealous of Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon. It was in fact embraced as a success for the entire world, and it still is (at least if we don’t deny that it happened).
We are the ones who individually determine the course of our lives. As the adage from Abraham Lincoln goes (and which was later appropriated by Silicon Valley): “The best way to predict the future is to create it.” No one else is going to do it.
Recently I’ve had what I consider to be successful renderings of a couple of works for mezzo-soprano that were composed for the singer Alice Simmons, whom my wife and I met after a performance at the Tate Modern Museum in London. We became friends and eventually I wrote her a song cycle based on James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake that she premiered in the UK. Recently, she premiered an evening-length, multimedia event for me in Kansas. In her late 40s, Alice is reinventing her life as a performer. It’s something that she avoided for many years due to her lack of confidence. But she’s now putting herself out there and is constantly busy. She is reinventing her future and creating a different outcome, on a path that embraces the challenge of performing.
She doesn’t view herself as a success, but I see that her success lies in reinvention. And her reinvention contributes to my success in collaboration, which has resulted in a couple of lovely performances.
“Am I successful?” We determine what is successful. I’ve known musicians and composers who had a very limited definition of success, which was to write a hit song and live on the royalties or to end up getting a gig with the New York Phil. That was it. And when one person I know didn’t achieve the latter, this person drifted away from music completely—and he had a genuine shot at world-class gigs like the Phil, even if they weren’t specifically with that particular band.
So, where can your definition of success go but down if you don’t achieve one specific goal? I’ve known one person to have that sort of success and who seemed to appreciate it: banjoist, fiddler, singer, guitarist, and songwriter John Hartford. In the 1960s, he penned “Gentle on My Mind” in half an hour and, when his record was released, Glen Campbell picked up the tune and made it a very large hit—when I knew Hartford, it was the 17th most-recorded tune in history. Elvis, Sinatra, and a host of others did their own interpretations. While Hartford lived on those royalties for the rest of his life, he didn’t rest on his laurels. He composed many more songs (never again to achieve the popular success of “Gentle on My Mind”), and he toured all over performing many concerts—sometimes clog dancing, playing the fiddle, and singing simultaneously. Even when cancer ravaged his body, he kept performing and writing; I saw his penultimate performance in Asheville, North Carolina, which to me was the ultimate in success as he was still persisting in doing what he loved. By this time, he was only able to play the occasional single tone on the banjo and sing his songs fronting a backup band. Yet, to me, each note expressed a lifetime of incredible music making. He was actively involved and never failed, even if he never had another hit.
I complimented him once for not trying to reproduce the success of “Gentle on My Mind.” “Oh, but I did,” he replied. He spent three weeks composing a follow-up titled “A Simple Thing as Love,” intended to be as successful at the previous one. I love that tune, but it never caught on in the manner he’d envisioned. In spite of not duplicating his first success, he carried on practicing, writing, and giving concerts.
Our successes are self-defined and they can’t be narrowly conceived. I’ve lived out my life with a list of three goals that I made as a 19-year old when I desperately needed direction in life. I decided that my career in music would consist of teaching, composing, and performing, not necessarily in that order. I believed then and still do that a successful day was being engaged in all three of those activities. Forty years later, I’m still doing it. I consider that to be a successful career in spite of never winning (or being nominated for) a Pulitzer, never placing in the Walnut Valley National Banjo Competition, and never being named teacher of the year (or some such crap).
It doesn’t matter. At the age of 60, I’m happy in a weird sort of way. I still have moments where I envy the success of others and wish, say, I’d been endowed with a different background that would have led to a Santa Fe Opera premiere or performances with major orchestras worldwide. But then I wouldn’t have the life I have now. And who knows if I would have been happy with that other life anyway? It’s easy to confound and twist success in our minds into a perception of failure. But I’m composing every day, teaching, playing gigs, and staging concerts. I get to work with many different people, musicians and artists. And I’m left with a wide variety of stories.
It really doesn’t get much better than this. But, like servicing an old car, I know that I’m going to have to maintain and continue to develop that attitude. The specter of dissatisfaction can take over at any time. But it doesn’t have to.