We’ve never had so many brilliant musicians, so little brilliant music

The cellist Brinton Smith, principal at the Houson Symphony and professor at Rice University, had such a good time teaching class at Aspen that, by way of parting, he shared some life wisdom with his students. To his amazement, his words went viral on social media – 800 likes and 200 shares in 24 hours. It’s a thoughtful message, with a couple of stings in the tail. We’re happy to ahre it on Slipped Disc:

by Brinton Smith

I have been almost as lucky as you can be in this business. I’ve had countless disappointments of course- some deserved, some not. That is the nature of the business. But I have a good job, a happy reputation, a balance between solo, chamber, orchestral playing and teaching, the good fortune to be friends and colleagues with some of the musicians I admire most in the world, and the respect of some of the peers that I care the most about. I’ve had the chance to travel, play concerts, enjoy the camraderie and live some of the enviable life. I haven’t had everything, but I’ve had as much as I could dare ask for a life in music. I have been very lucky, and you will be very fortunate if you are as lucky as I have been.

And I’m telling you that even if you get all that – even if you get all that and more… it isn’t enough. It will ultimately feel hollow. In the end, concerts are just concerts, victories are fleeting, fame is shallow, and easy praise dulls the senses. Dark moments will come, and your life in music, no matter how succesful, will be empty unless it is about something greater than your career. You must protect your belief that the music is part of something greater than yourself- greater than any of us. You have to keep studying and improving and trying understand more deeply. Believe in yourself, but believe also that you can do better- not just in a technical sense, but more beauty, more insight, more heartbreak- more music. As Mr. Heifetz said “There is no top. There are always further heights to reach.” We have never before had so many musicians of amazing proficiency, and yet it is rare to hear someone make truly beautiful music.

Whatever you do, whatever comes of your life in music, no matter how celebrated or ignored your role is, you must know why you have chosen to spend your life on this. As you face the harsh and humiliating aspects of our industry you must protect your belief in yourself, and in music and what it means. We live in the world of the automatic standing ovation, where praise is lavish and indiscriminate, and criticism is suspect. But in your internal world you must believe in a right and a wrong way, and that it matters. Make your life about something more than your job, your reputation or your ego. Be an example of what a musician should be.The moments of greatest happiness for me have ultimately not been some career milestone, but the moments when I learned something new, when I got one step closer to the unattainable. Love the details, know that they matter even if they don’t change your career, and never stop learning. This is not an easy path, but it is the only way to a meaningful life in music. My wish for all of you is that music will mean more to you at 60 than it did at 16, and that you will know the joy of humility, love and service to the most profound art I know in our world.

 

 

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  • Greg Bottini says:

    A million bravos!
    This should be printed up and handed to every music school graduate worldwide.

    • Wladek says:

      Bravos ??? it’s the usual crock of feel good baloney that one expects to hear at all graduation exercises.
      A little of this ,little of that all sounding sincere and
      full of meaningful introspection while saying
      nothing……………..

      • Brinton says:

        “feel good baloney”

        “I’ve had countless disappointments. That is the nature of the business…. you will be very fortunate if you are as lucky as I have been. And – even if you get all that and more… it isn’t enough. It will ultimately feel hollow. In the end, concerts are just concerts, victories are fleeting, fame is shallow, and easy praise dulls the senses. Dark moments will come, and your life in music, no matter how succesful, will be empty unless it is about something greater than your career…We have never before had so many musicians of amazing proficiency, and yet it is rare to hear someone make truly beautiful music…As you face the harsh and humiliating aspects of our industry
        …We live in the world of the automatic standing ovation, where praise is lavish and indiscriminate, and criticism is suspect. ”

        Call the life wisdom of my teacher baloney if you want, but dude, you have a seriously weird sense of ‘feel good’ . Well, as they say around here … “Bless your heart”

  • Mark says:

    Reminds one of a comment made by Mischa Elman. When asked about the new generation of musicians, he said “In our age, the level of mediocrity has risen”

  • Bruce says:

    That’s great advice.

    In the 2011-2012 season, my orchestra went through some experiences that did a great deal of damage to my (personal) belief that music matters to the world we live in. Naïvely, I guess, I had not thought of putting in place any protections for that belief because I didn’t think it could be damaged by anything. It has taken — I should say, it is taking — years to recover it.

    The belief that a well thought out, heartfelt performance of a Beethoven symphony makes any more difference in the world than, say, a decent job of parallel parking, is vital to a fulfilling artistic life; once lost, it can be harder to regain than you would think.

  • The View from America says:

    +1

  • former student says:

    Because I have seen the commenters on this site, I know it’s only a matter of time before someone complains “Who the hell does this guy think he is?” So as a former student, let me just leave this here… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i4YWy67vZ8w

  • Dick says:

    I am very happy for Brinton’s success. Happy for you, Brinton! (I’m sure either Brinton or someone else in the Batcello Batcave is monitoring this like a hawk :-P)

    “We have never before had so many musicians of amazing proficiency, and yet it is rare to hear someone make truly beautiful music.”

    This has been said for years now but most people just keep pressing buttons. If they haven’t gotten it by now then it’s pretty safe to say that they probably never will.

    As a legend once told me: You can’t teach imagination.

    • Roman says:

      Dick, the fact that you can’t teach imagination is untrue.
      Sure, some folks are more creative than others, but a playing full of emotions that really grabs the listener is a skill like any other and can be learned. If you have any extensive professional musical experience, you will recognize this to be true.

  • Ricardo says:

    Excellent! I subscribe to every word.

  • Fan says:

    “[Even] if you get all that and more… it isn’t enough. It will ultimately feel hollow”. Profound.

    (By the way, the title of the blog post is not in Mr. Smith’s original speech).

  • Sir David Geffen-Hall says:

    Lovely writing and good advice.

    Bravo!

  • Alexander Tarak says:

    Beautifully said. Spot on.

  • NYMike says:

    Well said, Brinton!

  • Nijinsky says:

    I think that’s one of the best things I read concerning music in a long time.

    I don’t think it’s acknowledged what music does. If music is a luxury so is thought, so are feelings, so is love for that matter. What difference it makes…

    I don’t know where to begin. A physical miracle is apparent, or physical healing, you can tell the difference because the problem is gone, that’s detectable. But music does something beyond that, perhaps. What path anyone’s life might have taken had they not some music to sooth over the pains, to be there to give them a little hope or empathy, or to hover their thoughts in another world so that they could make cogent decisions again; what music (or any of the other arts) have done in that regard you can’t really put in black and white. And yet all of that happens and more.

  • Guest says:

    Why is the title of this post what it is?? It has nothing to do with the main message of Brinton Smith’s thoughtful post…

  • Brinton Smith says:

    Thanks Norman and all for sharing, but honestly the credit for these ideas truly belongs to my own teacher, Zara Nelsova, who lived them in word and deed.

  • Philip says:

    Interesting message w good intent . But the use of the word ‘must’ is key and problematic . Could it be that this ‘must’ improve etc is partly responsible for the lack of true feeling in so many performances ? Kleiber puzzled people by not appearing more , but maybe he appeared just as much as he felt like therefore only when he knew he was being genuine

    • Brinton says:

      Honestly Philip- and I say this as a Kleiber fan- the evidence is pretty strong that he mainly accepted engagements in his later years when he needed to restock his bank account. I say ‘must’ because I believe that we have a debt to the musical world that supports us to try to improve as musicians. I do not think it is a lack of feeling but a lack of understanding of the language of the music and principles of phrasing that leads to boring performances. I know of very few musicians, young or old, who don’t love the music, but loving it isn’t enough to create something beautiful. I love art, but you don’t want to see my drawings…

  • Nick Schleppend says:

    Playing with imagination and personality is a good way to get yourself fired from an American orchestra, or not to get the job in the first place.

  • No. says:

    “We have never before had so many musicians of amazing proficiency, and yet it is rare to hear someone make truly beautiful music.”

    Oh, spare me.

    We’ve heard the same garbage from older musicians of every generation. They always seem to remember the bad old days with the rosiest of rose-colored lenses; they’re miles deep in the hole of survivorship bias; they’ve had every opportunity to change things in a place where it could actually matter – from behind the audition screen – and never did.

    If musicians are trending towards standardization it’s because that’s how auditions are won – we all talk to each other, we record these things, we share them. We know what works and what doesn’t, and the fact is you win an audition by playing in a way that the committee sits back and says, “Yup. That’s how that goes.”

    Here’s the truth of the matter.

    Orchestra hiring practices do not encourage the kinds of playing that Smith laments, and orchestras are BETTER for it.

    Why? Because you need, for the most part, people who can play correctly in dead-nuts-accurate time and in tune with broad dynamic range and accurate articulation, each and every time, because rehearsals cost $500 a minute, so efficiency is, you know, important.

    You don’t need a bunch of soloists in the 2nds going off the reservation while they’re supposed to be playing harmonic support.

    If boring performances are happening, then it’s on conductors and principals. It’s on people designing auditions and running them. Don’t tell me there’s something wrong with the younger generation of musicians, Smith. Your generation is the one that’s training us.

    • Absolutely says:

      Dear “No”
      If you really feel this way then why keep playing professionally? I am a member of one the most famous and well respected orchestra’s in the U.S. and most assuredly I can tell you that my colleagues care VERY much about subtlety, nuance, expression, and trying our hardest to portray the composers intentions. If you are just cranking out accuracy that’s your prerogative but please don’t assume that’s everyone’s! Also, if you want to win an audition in an orchestra like this then yes your nuts and bolts must all be there but you need artistry as well. Just my opinion but I think Mr. Smith’s comments to his students are dead on. Bravo, Brinton!

    • Brinton says:

      I knew I shouldn’t have checked back- the cost of vanity… Look, I’ve got plenty of issues with the audition process, but the idea that training for a succesful audition must mean turning off your musicianship for life or that you can’t be a good musician and play and blend with a group is just wrong (those are in fact fundamentals of good musicianship) and I think you know that. I can only tell you that I will not vote to hire a candidate that I think is a not a sensitive, creative musician, because we need that energy to be able to phrase spontaneously together as a section, just as we need good sound, good intonation and good taste. But I am one vote and that is only one orchestra. I’ve lost plenty of auditions to people I personally thought were boring musicians, and never once have I thought “jeez, I need to go home and practice playing more boringly”. We are who we are. The outcome of an audition is a reflection of the quality of the committee as much or more than the quality of the candidates and there are a lot of random variables as well. Yes it is my generation that’s training your generation, and there’s plenty of training out there devoted merely to mechanics. Sometimes that is the path to success- a lot of boring competition/audition playing (or worse vulgar solo playing) is elevated. But there are some great musicians teaching out there too, teaching music and having succesful students. Your musical life can’t be defined only by what it takes to win an audition or competition. That is why I say what I say to my students that “success” can not be the main goal of their life in music, only a means to survive. That the values must be internal because they won’t be appreciated by most of the world. And I make them listen to Heifetz, Feuermann, Rachmaninoff,Toscanini, Kreisler etc… and all these players of the ‘bad old days’ that I idolize from my survivorship bias hole. Whether you care or not, I do feel for you. Every student of mine that isn’t working burns at my conscience. It’s incredibly hard out there and we don’t adequately prepare people for what they will face, nor give them realistic views of the odds, when they are in school. But that is a different subject. I wish you the best- sincerely. It is a tough life in music and I understand your frustration well.

      • No. says:

        Brinton, thank you for responding to me. I’m glad you checked back – and part of the reason I was so hard-nosed about it was because I wanted to elicit a response. It’s nothing personal, I hope you understand.

        Let’s get into it a little bit then. Two basic lines of thought here.

        First:

        “…I make them listen to Heifetz, Feuermann, Rachmaninoff,Toscanini, Kreisler etc… and all these players of the ‘bad old days’ that I idolize from my survivorship bias hole.”

        Of course – we all idolize those musicians. But they were extreme outliers even in their time.

        The rose-colored lenses I’m talking about are the ones we wear when we talk about the old days as if those musicians were even remotely typical of their era – they weren’t.

        And my second:

        “The outcome of an audition is a reflection of the quality of the committee as much or more than the quality of the candidates and there are a lot of random variables as well.”

        Let’s talk about this a bit. The spoiler effect tends to kill a lot of auditions by running the committee out of options by the time they get to the final. The 50%+1 consensus model for candidate advancement is a much bigger problem than anyone seems to think.

        For one thing, it causes qualified, competitive candidates to forego auditions until the thing fails a few times and softens up the committee. Happens all the time.

        For another, the advancement model changes the way musician training is done.

        Teachers HAVE to place a greater and greater emphasis on accuracy, technical accomplishment, purity of tone and intonation, broadly rendered dynamics – in other words, really, really, ridiculously good playing.

        This is why I said that it tends to be good for orchestras in general, because the technical capabilities we see now in young players is miles beyond what they were just a couple decades ago.

        But it’s not necessarily creative or adventurous playing that wins auditions.

        Because auditions are sort of inherently, structurally broken, you HAVE to train people in that way since it’s the only way to give folks a fighting chance.

        Actually, you only have to do that because music school is nominally about training professional musicians. We don’t exactly do this for fun, right? We do this in order to make a living at it, yes?

        Conservatories all over the place are admitting too many kids and putting them a couple hundred thousand dollars into debt in order to finance music school educations. So if you (meaning, conservatories) don’t get those kids ready to win a great job, and most of the time they don’t get their kids ready to exist in the professional world – it’s malpractice. It’s a financial death sentence.

        But nobody tells the kids that before they sign on and if a faculty member said as much to his studio class he’d be fired instantly.

        So, yeah. I think you do suffer from serious survivorship bias, and I think it’s deeply affecting your way of thinking about what young musicians are doing.

        After all, you’re not 24 years old carrying a quarter million in nondischargable, non-asset-backed loans at 8.5% blowing a hole in your balance sheet in a rapidly shrinking job market.

        You can afford to idolize Kreisler and Toscanini, and lament the decline of unique musicianship, right? You’ve got tenure.

    • A.R. says:

      I agree with you about orchestral musicians being generally dull and lifeless, but I’m not sure how you’ve done the mental gymnastics to convince yourself that’s a good thing. Good luck to you in whatever corner of this miserable industry you’re toiling away in. I know it’s grim here in my little corner these days…

  • Roy Sonne says:

    Having spent a long life as a professional musician, who still practices every day and listens to music every day, I must respectfully disagree with Mr. Brinton Smith. There is beautiful music being made every day by countless talented and dedicated musicians. The older generation had no monopoly on musical artistry and expressive power. Just stay open, stay receptive and keep listening — there is beauty and profundity all around you.

  • M2N2K says:

    Nowhere in Brinton Smith’s text as it is presented here does he state that there is less beautiful music being made now than before. He says that “it is rare to hear someone make truly beautiful music”, but does not say that it was less rare in the past. We can argue about the definitions of “rare” and “beautiful”, but in any case the headline misrepresents the cellist’s statement and therefore it is indeed inaccurate and misleading.

  • Edgar Self says:

    About Kleiber the younger it was Karajan who said “Carlos conducts only when his freezer is empty.”

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