A Process for Everyone: Teachers, Freelancers, and Big-Job Auditioners

Audience calibration can be difficult. Being an opera timpanist is, to put it mildly, a very specific niche. But one of my aims with this blog overall is to use my specific experience to extract and extrapolate principles that are universally applicable.

So, reader, who are you? If you clicked your way here, you might be a percussionist at a conservatory, or an auditioning instrumentalist, or a dedicated music enthusiast. (Feel free to comment below!) Maybe you saw a facebook post, are on the mailing list, and/or have already read some of the other things I’ve written. And so this is already likely right up your alley. But it also might be entirely relevant to your friend / sister / brother / parent / colleague too….

Here’s why: in the last 20 years, a new field of scientific study has emerged. It’s called “the science of expertise,” and one of its leading pioneers is a researcher named Anders Ericsson. Ericsson, his students, and a host of other scientists have spent decades amassing data that proves a very specific point: there is a common process that humans use to achieve expertise across nearly every field imaginable, and it’s called “deliberate practice.”

I previously wrote,

I have a B.A. in physics, and an M.S. in electrical engineering. I did not attend a conservatory, nor do I hold a graduate degree in music. Now I’m principal timpanist of the MET Orchestra. How did I do that? I attribute it to two main things — two major changes I made roughly ten years ago: First, I decided I wasn’t going to have any attachment to an outcome. Second, instead of chasing specific outcomes, I embraced a process of continual refinement.

That process is “deliberate practice.” In the next series of posts, I’ll be exploring this concept more deeply, and specifically detailing how I applied that process to timpani. I can confidently assert that my path is a testimonial to — and validation of — Ericsson’s research. My personal experience provides another data point in that opus of work.

But to begin, I want to be clear and restate my intended audience:
This is not just applicable to timpanists.
Nor is this just for auditioning orchestral musicians who want to win big jobs.
Nor is this even only for musicians generally — the process of “deliberate practice” is applicable to nearly anyone who wants to get better at nearly anything.

For now, I’ll be exploring the process of deliberate practice through the lens of musicians, and how it relates to our craft. But keep in mind that these general principles apply to nearly anything in your life that you want to improve in a dedicated and focused manner. Because when I wrote,

Attaching yourself and your life’s happiness to an outcome you cannot fully control is insane. We all do this to some extent. We’re only human. But the point is we don’t have to. It can be different. Here’s how it can be different: focus on process…practice with extreme methodical rigor.

…that isn’t specific to just me, as a nanotechnologist-turned-MET-Orchestra-Musician. That is a framework for improvement that experts will attest to across fields as far-ranging as tennis, neurosurgery, chess, corporate leadership, theoretical physics, orchestral music, “Jeopardy!”, and number-memorizing competitions.

Through the lens of musicians, it can easily seem like there is this big gulf between wherever you might be, and those folks who “have the big jobs.” But it can also seem like those “big jobs folks” have some innate gift that enabled their success, or access to magical insight that got them where they are; I’m here to say that is categorically false.

I would also propose the following: regardless of your ambition — whether to teach Suzuki, freelance actively, or tour the world as a soloist — your processes can and should look very similar, just scaled with the appropriate amount of time and energy invested. Think of it like this: Olympic 5000m runners train rigorously with refined methods. You, on the other hand, would simply like to do well in this year’s 5k Turkey Trot. But if peak-performance running is an important and meaningful part of your life, is there any reason you shouldn’t train for that 5k with the best methods possible? You’ll surely scale back the time and energy invested (since you don’t need to qualify in Olympic trials), but why wouldn’t you want your training to be efficient? Why wouldn’t you want your runs to lead to the most rapid improvement?

Hence my overarching proposal: musicians of all stripes can improve according to the same principles of deliberate practice, and the time and energy invested can simply scale according to the career track. Moreover, all musicians can be unified by their love of the process — the joy of refining their craft.

Let me be more specific: since I’m proposing that the principles of deliberate practice apply equally to teachers, freelancers, and auditioners, it’s worth highlighting one of the distinguishing characteristics that separates auditioners from the others. If you’re teaching and/or freelancing, you are already doing your process. You’re doing it everyday. And you are almost certainly doing it because you love playing your instrument with other people, and/or helping other people improve on their instrument. If you didn’t love it, you would and could be doing something else.

But auditioning is somewhat different: you don’t necessarily get to do the job while you’re refining your process. The process precedes the actual job, and the job is a subsequent byproduct. So, while the time and energy investment threshold is higher, the essential criteria is still the same: it has to come back to a love of the process. Viewed that way, auditioners are just a subset of the broader class of musicians who love the process of refinement. That auditioning subset could essentially be defined by the following question: “Do I want to engage my process at a higher artistic level for better pay, while simultaneously being comfortable with the fact that it might not work out?”

In essence, you might consider the following series of questions that could define the time/energy range you’re willing or able to commit:

Question 1: Are you going to be happy refining your craft, practicing, performing with (and for) others, and/or teaching?
If yes, you should absolutely dive in to being a process-focused musician.
If no…well, it might be prudent to reassess why you wanted to be a musician in the first place. And this is not a judgment of “good vs. bad” — not everyone can or should be a musician! (For example, the world also needs nanotechnologists!)

Question 2: Was your answer to Question 1 predicated on winning a “big job” in an orchestra?
If no, great.
If yes, you’ll need to face a firm reality: there are no guaranteed outcomes here. Deployed effectively, deliberate practice can guarantee that you’ll get much better…but it cannot guarantee that you’ll win. It will improve your odds, but it’s just that: odds. Unfortunately, the 21st century music world exists at the junction of over-supply and under-demand, and no one can promise you that you’ll win a big job. (Anyone that does is not being honest.) That’s yet another reason why you should be in it for the love of process, and not for an outcome that you cannot fully control.

Question 3: Do you possess the will, focus, and discipline to invest huge amounts of time and energy over many years that could potentially win you an audition in a great orchestra?
If no, that’s TOTALLY fine. There are plenty of legitimate reasons to freelance and teach and be perfectly content doing so. It’s a big musical ecosystem, and all of its biomes and organisms are essential!
But if yes, then you can be harnessing the principles of deliberate practice and layering specific auditioning strategies on top…even though your essential process will still be the same.

I’ll inevitably be posting more timpani-specific things — those will be obvious. I’ll also be posting more liberal-artsy takes on the science/music overlap; no offense if it’s not your thing.

But if you’ve read this far, I’m guessing refining your craft is your thing. In that case, stay tuned: the twelve posts are for YOU.

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