Today I woke up wondering about validation, support, encouragement. Those ingredients that I believe are necessary but grossly overrated when it comes to personal achievement. I wonder, all things considered equal, if the difference between achievement and failure is validation. As children, infants we are not aware of our limitations. The idea of impossible doesn’t register for us. Failure is a concept that we must learn and be taught. Intrinsically, our brains are sponges ready to do, learn, think, and create. Our parents and social networks are bubbling wells of praise, support, love, and encouragement ever driving us to try again. When we learn to walk it’s never assumed that we can’t or won’t be able to. When we learn to talk the same holds true; we do because we’re hard wired to do so and our supportive, nurturing environment reinforces that. The idea of not being able to do so or the notion of competition and ultimately failure never factors in because, at that age why should it? And really, at any age, why should it? Our parents may obsess over our level of achievement, at what age we learned to walk and talk, the development of our motor skills, the tying of our shoes, etc. but we, unless primed to do so, are wholly oblivious and generally, completely unphased, unaware by life’s benchmarks which qualify us based on our endeavors. As we grow older we become aware of what we can and can’t do, what we should and shouldn’t be able to do, the value and merit of these abilities, the competition around us that sets the benchmarks and acts as the litmus test by which our achievements are measured and valued. We become ever more increasingly in need or in want of support and validation that reaffirms our goals, directions, and our ability to achieve them. Instead of our youthful, internally generated blind faith in ourselves we begin to look outwardly to those whom we trust or believe to know more than us, to have more insight and wisdom like soothsayers divining the future from pebbles and tea leaves in the form of our demonstrated potential, track record, and the recommendation of others whom they believe all knowing. We look to them, we seek them out and we trust them in much the same way we trust the medical prognosis provided to us by a clinical specialist diagnosing the cause of our ailment, prescribing medicinal remedies to mitigate its impact, and predicting the outcome. We lose faith in ourselves, in our own judgment, our own abilities, and trust those around us and this becomes the dowsing rod that guides us to the thirst quenching water that is to be our destiny. What then happens if, in our development over the course of time, we lose our cheerleading squad; our soothsayers predict doom; our goals no longer receive the necessary validation to encourage us to continue forward? What are the crucial intervals of time at which a person requires that extra dose of encouragement, support, validation that will make the difference between progress and regression, achievement and failure?
As a musician this question becomes all the more salient as so much of our career and its path is predicated on the recommendation and belief in us by others. In our field, opportunities are gained or lost based on past demonstrable achievement which was made possible by someone else’s opinion of and appreciation for our output. Artists and musicians specifically spend countless hours perfecting their work. What starts off as inspiration can, over time become handicraft because of the repetition and drilling of perfection and there is a very finite window of time where someone can demonstrate themselves worthy of recognition and glory that allows them to be noticed and promoted. We like to believe that our professional success and achievement has nothing to do with systems of success and promotion outside of our own work ethic but that rather our own hard work and discipline has provided us with opportunity. And though there is a considerable amount of hard work and discipline that goes into reaching what some would consider the pinnacle of success, we all too often diminish the impact and influence the role of other people’s validation plays into our own success.
We seek out teachers and institutions whose names will speak to our quality as a musician, that will, in theory, groom us for the career we want and provide us with the requisite notoriety to be taken seriously. It then becomes in their best interest to ensure as best they can our success in hopes of furthering their own reputation within the industry thus making it heavily frowned upon to take risks with unproven would be artists who are in the infancy of their careers. Our system demands results, the earlier the better. It’s as if the entire art form is setup on a precarious point where if any one piece is misaligned it will all come toppling on itself. Would be great artists who haven’t yet demonstrated achievement in the way that is valued by these respected institutions and instructors are left to find encouragement and validation from other forms if they want to continue pursuing their dreams, while those who check the prescribed boxes that sufficiently speak to the values that these individuals acting as agents for a great institution are ushered along, gaining more experience, more notoriety, more opportunities, and ultimately more and more validation until their hopes for a career become the reality of such. Our system continually rewards those and reaffirms those who meet the arbitrary standards of the system while belittling and undermining those who in that moment do not. It then becomes incumbent upon those who have benefitted from this system to further support it, to believe themselves worthy and exceptional in order to maintain the structure, feel validated in their achievements as hardworking individuals based on this system, and to not question the merit or accuracy of said system as to not undermine their own sense of worth and draw attention to a system that favored them without their being worthy. In other words, the moment the individuals who benefit from this system ask questions, reveal the man behind the curtain, their achievement gets drawn into question thus behooving them to maintain and further insist on the value and validity of the system and its precepts, no matter how ill fitting or equitable (assuming equity is a goal).
This perhaps wouldn’t be so bad if the standards weren’t ephemeral, vacuous, and often times based on very subjective ideas of taste, preference, and prejudice of whatever kind. I have a colleague, who I will call Jane. Jane started her instrument at the usual age for her instrument which happened to be earlier than me, and was fortunate enough to live in a city that boasted a world-class orchestra and whose family had the resources to pay for lessons with the principal player of that orchestra and summer festivals with other great players of other great orchestras. This teacher, Professor Leon, who during their secondary education studied with one of the great pedagogues of the instrument, Dr. Arnold, went on to graduate from one of the premiere music conservatoires in the United States, an institution with a history of excellence and a reputation for placing great students in great orchestral jobs. There, Professor Leon studied with Maestro von Bergen, a world-class performer playing associate principal in a world-class orchestra, with of course world-class connections. Dr. Arnold, who still currently teaches and continues to boast world-class students, is very well connected within the orchestral community especially within this instruments area. He is known to receive beforehand information regarding auditions and post audition commentary direct from members of the panel, further making his training that much more salient and entrance into his studio that much more desirable. Jane went on to study with his teacher’s former teacher, Dr. Arnold, but not before having lessons, masterclasses, and coachings with Maestro von Bergen, and later went on to train at other world-class well known full-scholarship offering summer music festivals and training orchestras, thereby furthering the likelihood of her eventual success, receiving strong validation and encouragement along the way, making professional contacts and developing a reputation early on while her potential is still relevant, and incurring very little debt along the way. Graduating with a BA in music performance from Dr. Arnold’s studio, she is now the principal player of a major symphony orchestra in the US which, given her training and experiences, isn’t much of a shock. She for all intents and purposes represents the many ways our system validates itself through the rewarding and continual validation of those deemed worthy and how exceptionalism is relative and subjective based on someone else’s designation. That’s not to suggest that she is undeserving of her achievements or that she isn’t a wonderful musician, but merely to draw attention to the many ways in which factors outside of hard work and discipline play into molding and grooming “successful” people or shaping one’s achievement and belief in themselves which underscores their drive towards achievement. One could speculate that Mr. Leon, while teaching Jane, would talk to Dr. Arnold and Maestro von Bergen, who would then talk to others, about her progress and potential, perhaps giving her ample opportunities to study with them while in secondary school, creating a rapport, and laying the foundation for what would be a long-term symbiotic musical relationship. Then with these teachers’ letters of recommendation and considerable training gain access to summer festivals and training orchestras thereby receiving more training and other career-building opportunities that other, equally qualified players might not have gotten because their pedigree might not be as glamorous or their grooming not as illustrious or their teachers simply not being in the loop or having the kind of social cache that makes audition panels take note and perhaps overlook mistakes as not indicative of their training or intrinsic artistic ability but some forgivable, non-deal-breaking accident thereby being provided the benefit of the doubt; after all, shestudied with Mr. Leon, Dr. Arnold, and Maestro von Bergen, among others, she must be good.
I then think about under-privileged communities where the only thing lacking is funding, access, opportunity and where talent and potential are in abundance. How much harder it is for them to make those kinds of connections early on, to gain that kind of access to the inner workings of the system, being privy to all the information, training, expectations, and standards, for someone to take notice of their output and deem it valuable enough to receive favor and validation, to be granted the benefit of the doubt, to be promoted in spite of their socio-economic background which runs dangerously parallel to racial make-up. I wonder who validates their dreams, hope, drive, and aspirations. How much greatness has been lost because too few in power, in a position to create change, knew where to look or were too scared to take a chance and risk their own reputation on someone deemed “other,” outside of the checked boxes that our system’s rubric has arbitrarily created out of fear, a desire to exclude, an inability to see potential in the dark corners of the world based on fear and a quiet nagging of possible inferiority? How is it that in our field we can so accurately divine who will and will not make it from as early as secondary school if there aren’t seemingly invisible systems in place that help guide and direct individuals down these paths, encouraging, validating, and again, reaffirming their choices and right to belong? This system which seeks to mask its own nurturing of privilege and self-aggrandizing tactic of self-preservation lays waste to dreams, passion, and achievement.
None of this is to suggest that everyone in our field has followed down such a clear path as Jane or that one must follow this path in order to realize their artistic goals or that people who have gained success in our field are undeserving, unqualified, or unworthy. That’s a discussion for another time, but I’m willing to bet that a vast majority of those who have “made it” received tangible validation in the form of benchmarks, notoriety, and access from others, the gate keepers of our industry, and did so at regular, pivotal intervals that have mitigated moments of self-doubt and encouraged them to continue onward and that the more unlikely it is for them to be successful within the field, the more prestigious their training and/or forms of validation. Perhaps the question then for inclusivity and diversity within the classical music world isn’t about what orchestras can do to create visibility, but what the gatekeepers, the midway agents of passage into the field can do to provide real, salient and relevant validation to diverse populations and would-be artists.
The one prevailing truth I’m reminded of is that institutions are made to last and there is no greater, more enduring, and long-lasting an institution than that of white supremacy and when you couch an institution within an institution the survival of one becomes contingent on the survival of the other. To challenge one inherently means you’re challenging the other so to dismantle one is to then dismantle the other and that is epic work. When you’re raised within a system of oppression directed at you, you find speaking out against that system to be too painful, self-sacrificial a burden. You intuit safety in maintaining the status quo, looking to other factors, anything besides the system, to save you from having to address it yourself. You unconsciously, or perhaps consciously, become a cheerleader for the oppressive institution within which you live; the very same institution that subjugates and disenfranchises you, having been so inculcated as to protect it even to your own detriment. Thus is the world of white supremacy and, by extension, the struggle within classical music. To be black or brown in an all-white sea is to be tokenized and you’re in the position of either upholding the status quo for job security or speaking truth to power and risking professional alienation. Thus is the burden, the risk, and the psychological strain imposed upon the few black and brown voices in a position to enact change from within. The struggle is indeed real.
Living in Europe I’ve found the system is a bit different in its construction but the result pretty much the same. I’ve had close friends tell me of instances where they’ve been told that having a person of color in the orchestra or on the podium or as the soloist wouldn’t “look right.” Of course implying that what’s “right” is good, and that what’s “good” is uniformity, conformity, and the status quo. What’s good is white. I’ve had my own experiences where my ability to do the job was secondary to what the color of my skin suggested was possible for me to do. To see me is to see an unknown, a risk, a challenge. To entrust the leadership of a clarinet section or a concerto to me is for many a scary proposition. By virtue of the color of my skin I challenge conventions; I usurp the potency of history and tradition that requires a kind of trust and respect that some can’t or won’t muster to provide a person of my skin color. I’ve found myself epically exhausted in my quest towards perfection, hoping that in achieving perfection I’ll provide no further doubts or misapprehensions to my skills, talents, or training. That in removing the slightest potential roadblock I will make smooth my path towards the career I’d like and be able to be the change I’d like to see more globally in other sectors of the industry. Unfortunately, I still remain mortal, human with tears, sweat, blood, and feelings. I’m still fallible, weighing the musical risks I take with the likelihood they won’t be appreciated because of who I am rather than their validity or my musical conviction. It’s all incredibly exhausting seeing hypocrisy, double standards, and/or favoritism work on behalf of the dirtiest, the darkest of institutions, white supremacy. It’s emotionally taxing to know that the fruits of your labor may go unrealized and that getting out of bed and facing the bleakness of your reality is less than half the battle, and yet still a huge step. There are days when it’s all I can do to get up and go to the practice room, opting to work through the music than fight another battle for respectability, opportunity, consideration, knowing that asking for help or advice is too much a burden to place at the gatekeepers’ feet and too important a request to entrust to white supremacy. I’m too stubborn to give up and still too sensitive to not be effected.
As a side note, I’ve always found it very telling that within the US, the MET is the most diverse orchestra boasting a wide range of racial and ethnic minorities as well as gender identities and that they remain the only orchestra within the US that has blind auditions at every round and are obligated to hire someone at the end of the audition instead of these stalemates we’ve become increasingly more accustomed to with other orchestras who’s audition processes aren’t nearly as transparent. They do all of this and remain not only the hardest working orchestra in the US but also one of the most illustrious, never once sacrificing quality. I think it’s very telling and should provide validation to another way of doing things and the benefits of diversity.