Many musicians are destroyed by success, but no one is destroyed by failure

Many musicians are destroyed by success, but no one is destroyed by failure


norman lebrecht

June 05, 2018

This piece of pre-audition advice by Brinton Smith, principal cello of the Houston Symphony, is going viral on musician networks (the picture is unrelated).


We start three days of cello auditions today. I have more students and friends taking part in the process than I care to think about. The audition process is not designed to advance the best musicians or even the best instrumentalists. At its best, it only advances the people who played the best audition, at that particular moment, with that particular repertoire.

This is not sports. Having to order different musicians with different strengths and weaknesses numerically is like being asked to rank a bowl of fruit. Choosing a new colleague this way is like choosing a spouse through an evening of 2 minute speed dates, while wearing a blindfold.

It is the worst system except for all the others, and it is painful and somewhat soul crushing to take part in it on either side. It is inevitable that some great, qualified cellists who have invested their hours, their money and their souls to play for us will be sent home discouraged and unhappy.

It takes incredible bravery to take part in this system, and every player who does has my respect and gratitude. Remember the words of Kipling- triumph and disaster are both imposters. We need jobs of course, and have to do what it takes until we find one, but we didn’t go into music to find a job, we went into music because of what it means to us and in the world. Guard and protect that belief and that passion, remember why you play, and never stop learning or trying to improve, even if you win.

Many musicians are destroyed by success, but no one is destroyed by failure. If there’s any lesson to my own career it’s that every failure is temporary. Play without regrets and play music- we are rooting for you.


  • Hernando marquez says:

    What a pile of rubbish. Many a fine musician is destroyed every day by the constant beatings at auditions, and their ‘failure’ to win a job. I’m sure the view from his ivory tower (with health insurance and holiday pay) is delightful and his pompous words will resonate with the idealistic 19 year olds.

    Perhaps a more sincere view that he hates the process, it’s the only one we have, and that it makes most full time orchestral hurt that so many talented colleagues will never enjoy his benefits would be better. Although that doesn’t fit in a greeting card or inspirational poem. Don’t kid yourself that failure doesn’t destroy people.

  • deborah mawer says:

    ==no one is destroyed by failure.

    Nonsense. Remember the words of ‘Do you know the way to San Jose’, about actors not making it ”

    “L.A. is a great big freeway
    Put a hundred down and buy a car
    In a week, maybe two, they’ll make you a star
    Weeks turn into years. How quick they pass
    And all the stars that never were
    Are parking cars and pumping gas”

    • Barry Guerrero says:

      Great song! The sad thing is that very few people in San Jose these days, know the existence of that song (they’re mostly transplants, just like most anywhere else). Oh wait! . . . it’s now called Silicon Valley (a term that didn’t exist in my youth).

  • Frank Ell says:

    And from what perspective Mr. Marquez do you write your thoughts?

  • Elizabeth says:

    He’s speaking of the soul of an artist. Playing with love and abandon takes courage and industry and work have NOTHING to do with your playing. That is earthly and necessary to have work and take basic care of yourself and family but still, he is talking of the REASON you play, not whether or not you get the job.
    Getting the job is not married to your craft and your art.
    When you get that, you can find some freedom.

    • Hernando marquez says:

      From the perspective of having had 3 different full time positions in orchestras, but having seen dozens of talented friends walk away from music destroyed by being passed over by the audition process. As someone lucky enough to have a job, it is horrible to see those who you know could and should have jobs walk away.

  • AN says:

    While you need to love the music to put in the work, who except trust fund babies or those with spouses who earn enough to support them can prattle on about getting into music purely for the love of it and not caring about compensation or feel the effects of constant failure? It’s this nonsense that helps society feel okay about devaluing the worth of artists and feel they aren’t worth paying a living wage because somehow being able to eat and pay bills isn’t as important to a cellist as it is to an accountant. Especially when accountants are a dime a dozen. If it was merely about the music, orchestras would be filled with hobbyists. Why is it so ghastly to some that artists feel worthy of being paid their worth with benefits like any other profession? And that the love of the music is enough to fuel them to press forward? Hard to do when you can’t see a doctor or eat properly.

    • Harvey Smith says:

      Sorry to say, it is musicians who are a dime a dozen—even good ones—while accountants—even mediocre ones—are fairly expensive. It’s a problem of supply and demand.

  • bob says:

    There simply are not enough orchestral jobs for musicians.

    Often having, often overpaid orchestra players and conductors talk to youth about “just practice more” and “believe and it’ll be okay” is irresponsible and self serving.

    But in the music world it’s now “winner takes all”. The major orchestras get enormous 6 figure salaries, while other musicians who are good enough scrape by, all while being looked down by those who once upon a time got super duper good and then super dupper dupper lucky and won the fabled audition. The orchestra audition process breeds contempt and snobbery, and it shows in the performances of American orchestras (generally boring, dead, machine like paying with arrogant faces in the back of the section which say (“i don’t love music”).

    The comical competition of the process these days destroy the love of music in many people and…

    There simply is not enough orchestral jobs; so the responsible thing to do would be to take openly about it so that maybe our youth don’t spend 200,000 dollars on nothing???

    Forgive me for this somewhat diatribe of a comment, but some things have gone on too long enough to be discussed calmly without “rocking the boat”.

    • Bill says:

      Having just “failed” yet another audition, I agree that the process is broken.
      As an example: the audition in question appeared to be set up as more of a “gotcha” situation rather than seeking out who the most musical candidate was. The first round was made up almost entirely of the sort of excerpts that demonstrated nothing more than the ability to get through them. In fact, I’ve been to many auditions and have never seen the choices made for a first round that this orchestra made. It was clearly intended to make as many candidates as possible feel uncomfortable as possible so as to weed out them quickly. Everyone I spoke to about it afterwards felt the same way.
      Now, would I have done any better with a “normal” first round list? Maybe, maybe not, I’m not going to blame anyone but myself for not advancing, but the committees’ choices certainly didn’t make it a pleasant experience, and I doubt led to the hiring of the most musical person that day.
      The fact that this orchestra has had problems hiring players that get tenure after winning the audition speaks volumes.
      The biggest problem US orchestras have in the audition process is the over reliance on excerpts rather than solo repertoire. I would love to see a US audition have a first round made up of nothing but solo repertoire. I think we would see very different results in such a scenario and much more satisfaction with the process on both sides of the screen.
      As a brass player, I often wonder if legendary players like Bud Herseth or Arnold Jacobs would have stood a chance with the modern audition process.

    • Barry Guerrero says:

      “There simply are not enough orchestral jobs for musicians”

      That says it all.

  • buxtehude says:

    Do composers count as musicians? Stephen Foster was destroyed by failure.

    The OP is able to make his claim because musicians destroyed by failure rarely make the news, being as they tend to be, obscure. And does “destroyed” cover leaving the profession?

    Perhaps he is merely giving the half-time locker-room pep-talk…

    • John Borstlap says:

      I thought Foster was merely writing entertainment songs (19th century).

      And then: what counts as ‘failure’ and what as ‘success’? Works being popular? being condemned by the critics? attracting scorn, mocking, crazy caricatures in the press? (Wagner)

      As far as serious composers go in connection with being destroyed by success or failure, only Guctave Charpentier comes to mind, who after his very successful opera ‘Louise’ only wrote another opera which flopped, and then stopped writing alltogether. An indirect case of being – not destroyed but gravely hindered – by success, is Debussy: when he got famous with his single opera ‘Pelléas et Mélisande’ (1902), aspiring composers began to imitate his manners which made his own music seem monotone and less unique, with the result that he fanatically tried to do something completely new and different with each new work; being different and unique was very important ot him (‘…. rester unique, sans tare’). This, and the pressures of music life (international conducting invitations), and the wide notoriety with the media preening into his private life with all these troubles with women, publishing the juicy stories of attempted suicides and infidelities, turned him into a recluse and a very depressed man, struggling with inspiration. In the end he got sick and died in the 1st world war. In one o fhis letters he said that he was most happy when hardly known, and poor, and being psychologically entirely free to work on Pelléas.

      A case of a composer who was more or less rescued by failure, at the end of his life, was Richard Strauss: after decennia of bland, uninspired operas, he got entangled with the nazi regime, got terribly put down, and saw his income and savings disappear during WW II, together with his performing territory: the German opera houses most of which were bombed. He realized the end not only of the country he loved but also of his own life and the tradition which he felt so strongly committed to, and knew if anything was a failure, this certainly was. And then he wrote Metamorphosen and Vier letzte Lieder.

  • Deborah Mawer says:

    ===There simply are not enough orchestral jobs for musicians.

    Aren’t there too many music schools churning out players ?

    In London, we have Royal College, Royal Academy, Guildhall, Trinity turning out graduates many of whom will not get much paid work.

  • Thomasina says:

    “Every failure is temporary”…I’m not a musician but I have read on this blog the comments of musicians who tried 20, 30 auditions. It’s not mentally destructive if they never pass?

  • Brinton Smith says:

    A few points:

    The original sentiments that artists are more destroyed by success than failure come from Heifetz, not me. “no one” is perhaps overblown woridng on my part, but his point was that success is more dangerous to an artist than failure. Let me change the wording to “No one NEED be destroyed by failure” to satisfy the slipped disc illuminati…

    If one considers the number of US cello jobs open per year that pay a living wage relative to the number of graduates from the top ten conservatories each year, the odds of winning an orchestra job are similar to the odds of a division one college basketball player making the NBA – between 1-3%. Somehow no one is calling for their to be more NBA teams to support all these talented college basketball players. I don’t mean to be cold, but orchestras exist to serve their public and music, not as employment programs. I encourage EVERY musician to have a backup plan, as I did (I got an undergraduate degree in Math, because my parents feared this very thing)

    This advice was aimed at students I know- people who are close to the level needed to win a job, but perhaps not there yet. I’ve been there. I have yet to see a student who continues to improve and continues to show up not eventually find a place. Obviously there are some musicians for whom the necessary improvement is too great to make within a practical auditioning lifetime. These students are not ‘failures’, they were failed by a system that sees music students as a commodity and encouraged them to pursue a field they were not well enough prepared by the time they reached the college level. There are far too many colleges and conservatories encouraging people to major in music who will have no chance. It is something of a pyramid scheme, and the thing I am proudest of at Rice university is their policy of limiting enrollment and preparing their students to actually win jobs, with a track record that speaks for itself.

    After career setbacks, one faces a choice- either to try to persist and improve, or to stop. Neither of these choices is being ‘destroyed’, but those who persist and improve from each failure, and keep trying, do almost always find a place. Perhaps not everything they had dreamed of, but for most, enough…

    Let me tell you my path to this ivory tower and ‘pompous words’… In Juilliard I lost 7 concerto competitions in 5 years, coming in second in 6 of them, an unmatched record of futility in the school’s history. I never did win one. Ditto the Aspen music festival competition- five runner-ups, never a prize. I was a punchline of futility. But from this I learned 12 concertos and more than I ever would have had I won my first one. Taking auditions, I’ve lost at least 10 for every one I’ve won (and I’ve won four over the years, so you can do the math). Some I lost to players I felt were less deserving, some I won over players I felt were more deserving. It’s not an exact process. My first orchestra went bankrupt beneath me, leaving me unemployed and essentially homeless. But I kept learning, kept improving and kept showing up. I am a much better cellist than I was when I started out and I have my failures, not my successes to thank for that. Yes, I am in a fortunate position now relative to many, but I still feel that nearly every performanceI give is at least in part a failure, and I always want to get better. The drive to improve, to better serve music, not just to put food on the table, is what makes an artist, and ultimately what makes someone a desirable artistic colleague.

    I am damn well retermined to pass on the lessons of my many and continuing failures to my students, because it is the essence of what it means to be a musician. We can not change the system, we can only control our choices and how we react to what fate gives us. To those who seem embittered against the system, I am truly sorry for you. I wish you the best

  • Stay Loose says:

    I’ve heard actors discuss the audition process who take the view that every audition should be regarded as an enriching opportunity to perform for an exacting audience. That is exactly what one prepares for in the practice room, rehearsals, other ensembles and performances. Thus, whether you eventually get the gig or not, you are performing at your highest caliber for colleagues who can appreciate the highest level. What more can one ask? Think of auditioning as performing, and you can be grateful for each chance to be heard by peers. Every audition can be framed as a story of success. The job of a musician is to show up and represent.

  • DAVID says:

    People may not always be destroyed by failure, but many are certainly undermined, and some are indeed destroyed by it — failure being determined by the inability to meet with success (whether that means landing an orchestra audition or any other endeavor). Getting an orchestral job after a long series of rejections is not failure; rather it is success preceded by a string of failures, which speaks to the author’s perseverance. But it also speaks to a neglected element — namely, luck — which is not as glamorous and which does not feed the chummy narrative according to which effort always pays off in the end; it doesn’t always. Yes, there are musicians, like actors, artists, and CEOs, who went through a long period of rejection before meeting with great success; but there are probably even more who, despite their efforts, were not able to reach their goals, but those cases don’t feed the main thesis of liberalism according to which we are the makers of our destiny and that the ultimate outcome is always up to us. On the contrary– there is always an element of luck involved in any successful endeavor; even the most talented need some sort of luck. Aristotle himself said so about 2500 years ago that one needs also luck in order to live a happy life. I fully sympathize with Mr. Marquez, as I know from personal experience that auditions are far from being logical or fair processes and that it is perfectly possible to be an outstanding player and never get the job one deserves (or indeed, any job) just as it is possible to be a competent, yet somewhat mediocre player and land a great position (indeed, this seems to happen more often than one would think). The tenure process itself, in great part, is much more an exercise in politics and deference than a display of excellence — except perhaps in the very top orchestras, and even there deference may prove to be an integral part of the process. The reality is that the music world is saturated to such a point that the odds are becoming increasingly slim, and some orchestras develop rather arrogant attitudes in seemingly being able to find no one among the vast pool of excellent players that might be remotely good enough to join their ranks — a rather ironic twist given the fact that these very standards are often not reflected among those orchestra players who make up the very audition committees in charge of making these momentous decisions. In addition, there comes a point in life where the narrative of “work being its own reward” becomes rather tired and loses its luster — a point where one, to put it crudely, needs to pay the bills and perhaps even wants to have a more of a life, one that is not completely absorbed by music. When that reality hits, “success” and “failure” are no longer ethereal concepts but indeed harsh realities.

    • Bill says:

      To your point: Chicago Symphony cannot seem to find any player good enough to replace Principal Horn Dale Clevenger or Principal Trumpet Chris Martin, who himself was only hired after an overly long search to replace Bud Herseth.

      And of course, Martin was lured to the NY Philharmonic after their audition was unable to find a player sufficiently equipped to fill the high, lofty role of playing principal trumpet with them.

      Sooner or later, the nearly 80 year old principal trombone Jay Friedman will retire, and undoubtedly they will not be able to find anyone good enough to replace him, leaving the mighty Chicago Symphony without any permanent Principal brass, forever looking at the greener grass elsewhere for replacements.

      Clevenger, Friedman nor Herseth were hired in the manner that modern orchestral players are hired, and they seem to have worked out pretty well.

      • Roger Kaza says:

        The CSO has terrific players from within the section manning those posts, therefore there is little pressure to fill them. If they didn’t, they would have no problem getting first class subs from the outside, as Cleveland and LA have done with some of their principal vacancies. I agree, someday they will have to fill them with a mortal.

  • Stay Loose says:

    Destroyed? So dramatic. So entitled. I remember colleagues in music school who were hanging out in the lounge singing pop songs and dissing classical music. I asked them why they were performance majors aiming for careers in symphony orchestras if they didn’t like the music. One said, “I don’t know how to do anything else besides play violin.” This was at a conservatory that was part of a major university. This student had hundreds of classes and dozens of majors to switch to in an instant. This made me so sad, and I have met professionals who carry on this same charade.

    No one “deserves” an orchestra job. When I auditioned for Eastman there was a meeting for candidates and their families where the Admissions representative said, “We are proud to say that our graduates have successful careers–in music, education, business, sales, insurance.” You get the idea. They made it clear that they are not running a diploma mill with a guarantee that you will have a music career. Except for the few fortunate musicians who “make it to the majors” it was very clear to me that most musicians (including those working at the Met and the NY Phil) had a piecemeal existence that included a combination of college teaching, private teaching, K-12 teaching, summer festivals, chamber music, church gigs, solo performance, and/or side businesses or full-time day jobs in arts administration, temporary secretaries, computer programming, IT network administration, training, graphic design, insurance, sales, etc. I know a lawyer who became a conductor and a jazz guitarist who became a lawyer. Smart performers create their own opportunities–they don’t depend on an elite organization to hire them so they can lead a satisfied life. There are many people in all sorts of occupations with a passion for something who don’t get hired to their dream job.

  • Una says:

    Failure – because you sang or played so well but was treated like a race horse – is dreadful. Fail if you werent good enough, fine. That can be a pisitive experience and you only have yourself to blame. But it usually involves far more politcs and who you know and how than ability so fyen it’s very destructive.

  • Una says:

    Failure – because you sang or played so well but was treated like a race horse – is dreadful. Fail if you werent good enough, fine. That can be a pisitive experience and you only have yourself to blame. But it usually involves far more politcs and who you know and how than ability so then it’s very destructive.

  • Brinton Smith says:

    Against my better judgement I’ll take one last crack at this- there have been some erudite and thoughtful comments with valid points, but also some that seem stuck within the narrative of the headline and determined to ignore what I believe was the point.

    I’m probably foolish to lay bare for you my failures. I’m sure it would be better for my reputation and career to pretend that I was born a child prodigy, and flitted from victory to victory. But those people are the exceptions, and virtually every cellist I know in a top position today has had many audition and competition failures in their career, including first round exits. I think it is disingenuous and harmful to young musicians to suggest otherwise. My point was not that the orchestra auditions are fair, or that the odds aren’t stacked against the success of all but the top players, but that it isn’t just random. It is possible to use the preparation process to IMPROVE, both as an auditioner and as a musician, and if you do keep improving, taking enough auditions will overcome the random elements and you will very likely find a place. Failures forced me to improve- successes rarely did.

    I’ve made a part of my modest reputation playing and youtubing stupidly hard things like Paganini 24 and Waxman Carmen Fantasie on the cello- these are things I never could have done in my twenties, and a lot of what contributed to my development was pushing myself into situations where I was likely to fail. Life isn’t fair, auditions aren’t fair and even if they were, they would still be subjective- I thought I already said as much in the original post. But if you can continue to improve; If each negative experience is used as a chance for you to grow and become a better instrumentalist and musician, then you are not and will not be a failure, at least in my view. That isn’t naive pablum- I’ve lived it. (And BTW, an orchestra career is not a magic solution to a fulfilling artistic life- some of the most chronically unhappy musicians I’ve ever met had some of the most desired jobs in the world. Is a cellist turned lawyer who loves his free hours playing the cello really a failure compared to a steadily employed musician who hates their job and leaves their instrument languishing in their work locker?)

  • Jake Meyers says:

    First world problems. People need to get over themselves.