I heard an interesting comment recently by a motivational speaker. He said, “Information is not transformation”. I wanted to cheer. It was a very concise way to express a concept I’ve always tried to make sure my students know.

We live in the information age, and are often under the delusion that what we know about is what we know. Because of this, we take in huge volumes of information but little of it changes or enhances us. In music workshops too many students believe that being shown certain skills is the same as having practiced and integrated them. It takes focus, time and patience to actually make knowledge into skill. Only then is there the potential for musical success.

What is musical success, anyway?  IMHO, a successful musician isn’t necessarily a professional one, and a professional musician isn’t necessarily a successful one.

I’ve heard some amateur musicians say, “I’m satisfied with what I’ve learned and have no desire to progress farther,” and I would say that’s success, if you’re happy (and if you aren’t trying for a career). There’s nothing wrong with that. But for those who aren’t happy musically, falling short of success is, I’ve observed, often due to one of the following:

  • Thinking one can play but not putting in the time and focus it takes to actually do so. (Usually these are people with great musical potential. But you can’t ride on potential alone.)
  • Assuming that expression alone will carry the music. (Without skill there’s nothing to express.)
  • Assuming that if you’re not the best musician in the world you have no right to play expressively. (Without expression, music is just a bunch of notes.)
  • Underestimating your abilities and skills, and assuming you can’t set exciting goals for yourself.

I’d like to share with you some random thoughts from my life as a professional.

Was I successful? I suppose I could gauge my success on how well known I am or how big my audiences are or who my peers are or what venues I’ve played, but although I’ve been well blessed with all of that, those things have little to do with what I think of as actual success  –  those are only bragging rights.

I think true success is gauged on the degree to which you are living your passion, no matter how that looks to or compares to others. I never had any question about what my passion was or that I would do whatever it took to live it. From the time I was about twelve years old I knew what I would be doing with the rest of my life. I worked hard to develop my skills, then worked to build and maintain a career (first in folk music and later as a harpist). It was hard work but I loved it. I retired from touring after spending a large portion of each year on the road for well over 20 years.

Now I’m sitting under a canopy at a music camp, writing this as I listen to a dozen or more Old Time musicians playing ecstatic music on banjos, guitars, and fiddles. It’s good to get back to my roots. There’s nothing quite like this music; I’m sure it’s made a nice person out of many a crabby one. Gosh, there are some good musicians here; few of them are professional, but I’d call most of them successful. They know a thing or two, namely: there is no “arrival”; improving and learning is lifelong no matter how good you get, and there is always someone who plays or sings better than you, and that’s OK.

It strikes me that the way to be successful musically  – whether on stage or off  –  is to share, not show. In other words, it’s not about the player but about the music. “Showing” is making it all about yourself and how good you are. “Sharing” is demonstrating how wonderful music is. It takes skill to do that, but if you put your heart and your skill together in equal measure, instead of your listeners saying, “That person is so good, I’ll never be able to do that,” they’ll say, “I love that music. I think I’ll get an instrument and try it.”


Next week: The Right Stuff: Developing a Professional Career