Behind every master musician is a team that supports, challenges, inspires, and coaches them to success. Just like a racecar driver has a pit crew to make sure the car is operating at peak
performance, no good musician does it all alone.
It’s your job to choose the members of your team that will give you the best possible chance of success.
To create a web of support that allows you to move forward, shape and guide your practice, motivate you through rough patches, give you skills and knowledge, and see what you can’t see.
Many of us expect our private teachers to do all of this in one hour a week, or we try to do it all ourselves. If you limit yourself this way, you’re almost certain to make slow, sporadic progress.
The alternative is to build up a support network with depth and breadth, that is responsive to your changing needs as a musician and performer.
What follows is an incomplete list of roles and supports you might choose to have on your team and some ideas for how to get the most out of them.
Find someone who believes in you and is enthusiastic about your success. Someone who will encourage you to keep going, especially when it feels like nothing is working. Someone who can listen to your challenges without trying to solve them for you. This should not be someone who is responsible for evaluating your work or for giving you constructive criticism. A childhood music teacher or a relative who shows pride in your success is a good choice. Sometimes, just the memory of proud grandparent can be enough to keep you going.
We all need examples to emulate, people who awe us and help us remember why we wanted to become a musician in the first place, musicians who help us create the mental model of the sound we’re trying to create. You don’t have to know your heroes personally to get their support. Keep them on your team just by listening to recordings, reading articles about their practice habits, watching videos and interviews.
A Perceptive Ear
Someone you trust to give you good-taste opinions to your questions: “Is this tempo too slow?” “Do you like it better when I phrase it this way, or this way?” “How’s my dynamic pacing?” Bouncing different ideas off of your peers will help you develop good taste and find the edges of your genre.
The role of the teacher is to teach you technical skills and identify weaknesses in your playing. A formal private teacher is important to your success, but you can add other, informal teachers to your team by reading articles, watching videos, and attending masterclasses.
A good coach should recommend repertoire and direct your attention to broad areas for improvement. They can also make recommendations to help you develop your career. Early in your musical development, these were jobs for your private teacher, but as you reach higher levels of mastery, those tasks should be given to a coach so your teacher can focus on technical skills and specialized knowledge. Think of the coach as more “breadth-focused” and your teacher as “depth-focused”.
Working on a Baroque Concerto? Find an expert in Baroque ornaments. Singing a Medieval French aria? The pronunciation of Medieval French will be important. Does someone in the orchestra play the same melodic line? Consult with them and find out how they plan to phrase it and why. I once had to change the way I played a line in Scheherezade because the flutes, who played the line first, used a different articulation pattern for their triplets. It was a small discovery that led me to seek out a different level of mastery in all of my subsequent orchestral playing. How could you unearth a deeper level of knowledge in your music, and who might have that information?
You may have noticed that each of these roles fits nicely into one of the three pillars of expert performance. Which pillar seems to hold you back the most? That can be a clue to where you might need additional support.
As you grow as a musician, your support team will naturally change. You may add new cheerleaders, change teachers, or go to different peers to get new perspectives. Being aware of the different roles can help you notice if there is a gap you need to fill, or to recognize when one of your team members isn’t helping you in the way you need. As “solitary artists,” we often put all the responsibility on ourselves, but it’s important to recognize that we’re not solitary, and we are affected by the people around us.
Who’s on your support team? What roles do they play? Are there any changes you need to make, either by redefining a role for someone or “firing” them? What other roles are on your support team? Let us know in the comments.
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