Letter to my students: Kevin Spacey says "There is no prize out there" and other thoughts on finding work and finding your path.

Hi All,

Apropos of class discussions at Mannes and NEC this past week, here's a clip of actor Kevin Spacey giving advice to a younger actor on Inside the Actors Studio in 2000:

"There is no prize out there. The only prize is this one [points to self], and what you feel, and what you want to accomplish... I mean, to want and to be ambitious, and to want to be successful is not enough. That's just desire. To know what you want; to understand why you're doing it; to dedicate every breath in your body, to achieve... If you feel you have something to give, if you feel your particular talent is worth developing, is worth caring for, then there's nothing you can't achieve. You're going to grow up with your colleagues. You're going to watch them have success and watch them have failure, and you're going to watch how they deal with it. And they can be as much a teacher for you as anyone here, or anyone who's privileged enough to come here and speak to you."

You can watch the whole clip here. 

(Now, if only I could find him delivering this speech in the character of Frank Underwood from House of Cards -- intimidating us to inspiration -- my week would be complete.)

I woke up yesterday morning thinking about an exchange in class at Mannes on Friday, in which we discussed the realities of unemployment, underemployment, student loan debt, rapidly changing professional landscapes, economic recessions, and competitive job markets. Some of you were talking about how best to approach seeking well-paid work in this climate -- work that would leave enough room for you to maintain your commitment to practicing, rehearsing, creating and performing. (Real work which demands as much of your time as you can give.) 

I know this can seem intimidating. I graduated from Juilliard right into an early-1990s economic recession. There was talk of crisis in the music profession then, too. Some of my peers seemed to walk right into the careers they always knew they wanted to have. Others of us took more circuitous paths. (Here is a list I wrote a while back of things I or people I know have done for money at various times. Scroll down to the very end of the post to read the list. At one point or another I've done all but 20 of the 84 things on the list. I'll leave it to you to guess which ones.) 

The point is, the most important thing you can do is start to figure our your path, and what it is that you have to give, and why you think it's worth giving. When you can get that flowing, you open up a force that truly, only you can stop. Some things will come easily, readily. Others will come slowly, and with effort. But for all of us, I believe, this is an evolving process that occurs over the rest of our lives. What you have in your hands and your heads -- as musicians and artists -- are the tools to discover yourself. That's something not everyone has. (A lot of people just have TV.)

In class, I talked about a way to speak to your anxieties. To treat them with curiosity, rather than with dread. Here are the questions I mentioned:

  1. Is this true? (Are there really no well-paying jobs out there? Is it really impossible to do what I want to do?)
  2. How do I know? (Some things we know. Many more things, though, are really unknown. We project our fears into an imagined reality. It's important to try to tell the difference.)
  3. So what? (So what's really at stake here? What does this really mean to you? If what you want isn't impossible, what challenges are you facing in reaching it? How are you reacting to the success and failure that you see around you? What interpretations are you drawing from it? Can you untangle your fears from the realities?)
  4. What else? (What else does all this suggest to you? Are there other approaches you haven't yet considered? That no one has considered?)

The other big points we discussed -- and these are the ones I'd like to leave you with as you prepare your assignments -- are the real value that you holding your hands now. Here are the categories of value we talked about this week:

  1. The value of music. You get this already -- the profound human value of shaping sound out of memory, culture, tradition and personal voice and making it audible to others, with others.
  2. The skills it took to get you where you are now. The 10000+ hours of individual practice; the 1000+ hours of guided individual and small group coaching; collaboration under pressure of performance; the ability to perform flawlessly under any circumstance, the vision and discipline it takes to engage in disciplined, sustained effort towards a long-term goal (Wieniawski don't play itself); working under difficult leaders; working under visionary leaders; the ability to balance individual drive and collaborative effort; the list goes on.)
  3. The qualities only you have to offer. Each of you has a constellation of skills, characteristics, attributes, and experience that is yours alone. Each of you has something more that you bring to performance than your technique and your instrument and your knowledge of the music (e.g. your sound, your character, the elements of your personality, the stamp of your emotional experience, your extra-musical skills, the things you're naturally good at and enjoy doing). The best of who you are is what you offer to any working environment. The more you can understand the best in you, the better you can seek out environments where your best is recognized, respected and given the conditions to flourish.

This last, as I see it, is one of the hallmarks of a life worth living. 

And with that, I return you to your weekends.

All best, and always available if you want to talk more about any of this,