Finding Your Unique Path to Success

By: Edna Landau

To ask a question, please write Ask Edna.

It has been pointed out to me that in my column last week, I inadvertently misspelled the name of the author of an article entitled “Being a Professional Chorister” which appeared on Laura Claycomb’s website. His correct name is Martin L. Poock. My apologies to Mr. Poock for this oversight on my part.

Congratulations to violinist, Mina Um, winner of the First Prize in the First Anniversary Ask Edna contest. Mina has won a free career consult with me and I look forward to meeting her soon.

Dear Edna:

How does a classical musician get to the international status of someone like Yo-Yo Ma or Itzhak Perlman? In the 21st century when classical music is no longer the “popular music”, do classical musicians need to make themselves look “hip” or “fun” to attract audiences? How did these people rise to fame and success, and would their methods work for students who are beginning their career now, in the 21st century? —Mina Um

Dear Mina:

It is interesting that you say that classical music is no longer the “popular music”, as if it was when Mr. Perlman and Mr. Ma were young. Regretfully, I don’t think that was ever the case, especially  in the United States. What is true is that the world of entertainment was very different then than it is now. With the absence of e-mails, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Netflix and text messaging, there were much fewer distractions competing for people’s leisure time. Music tended to be a more regular part of the school curriculum, thereby exposing people to the beauties of classical music and helping to build future audiences. When Itzhak Perlman appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show at the age of 13, he was an instant success. A huge mainstream audience who may not have ever before heard the music he played was captivated by him, eagerly awaiting more.  Yo-Yo Ma also appeared on American television at an even younger age in a concert conducted by Leonard Bernstein. Despite this early exposure, the careers of these artists were handled with great care and sensitivity, with Mr. Perlman cementing the early impression he had made by winning the prestigious Leventritt Competition six years later. Both artists were taken on by the legendary impresario, Sol Hurok, who had the contacts to book them in high profile tours throughout the world.

So you see, there were no real “methods” that worked for these artists which could be applied to aspiring artists today. Perhaps there was a smaller number of gifted and promising artists populating the music scene in those days but the key to success then was the same as it is now – extraordinary talent and accomplishment, and the ability to communicate with audiences in a very personal, heartfelt and memorable way. You didn’t need to listen to too many measures of music performed by Mr. Perlman or Mr. Ma to know that you were hearing something very special. These artists clearly loved to perform and were not afraid to take risks on stage. Their talent was totally natural, and there was no need to think about superimposing anything additional in order to please an audience.

It is rare today for a classical artist to become an “overnight sensation”. Mainstream television shows are rarely interested in presenting them. As always, careers with longevity are largely built by word of mouth. And what gets people talking? Artists with extraordinary ability who have something special to say and to offer their audience. The challenge for young artists, therefore, is to determine what makes them special. If they can identify what that is and let it guide them in choosing the music they want to share with their audience, they will stand the highest chance of building a devoted following. They can help to introduce themselves exactly as they would like to be known by creating an informative, appealing website and by uploading samples of their performances on YouTube. If part of their nature is a wonderful sense of humor, they shouldn’t hesitate to show that in their performances, especially if they choose to give spoken introductions to any of the works. If fashion is a passion for them and they want to reflect that passion in their performances, they can certainly do that and, in all likelihood, it will come across as genuine. It is only when artists try to be “hip” for the sake of being different that it is likely to backfire.  If you look at the genres of music that are reflected in both Mr. Perlman’s and Mr. Ma’s extensive discographies, you can conclude that they were very inventive in coming up with projects and collaborations that would engage their public. However, it is important to realize that Mr. Ma’s ventures into Appalachian music and the rich heritage of the Silk Road came out of a tremendous intellectual curiosity and awareness of a diversity of cultures. He was fascinated by this music and wanted to make it part of his concert life. Similarly, Mr. Perlman’s irresistible recordings and concerts of klezmer music were inspired by music he heard in his childhood and learned from his father. He was thrilled at the thought of sharing this music with his classical music audience. I feel confident that if young artists today bring this same kind of genuine excitement and imagination to the decisions they make regarding programming, they will stand the greatest chance of attracting a sizable and diverse audience, as well as gaining the attention of people with the stature and influence to help them advance in their careers.

To ask a question, please write Ask Edna.

© Edna Landau 2012

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