A successful musician doesn't just happen. It’s not really about innate talent, and believe it or not, it's not all about practice. It is about three specific qualities that allow a musician to be able to practice effectively, play fluently and perform confidently.
The good news is that these are all qualities that can be developed. It's not a question of having them or not. Any musician can cultivate them.
What happens to many aspiring musicians, however, is that they become trapped. Their actions are guided by misconceptions with the result that they never experience the progress and satisfaction that they expected. Their hard work hasn't brought them any closer to their musical goal.
First, let me clarify what I mean by success in this instance. I’m not talking about professional success. In this post I’m referring to what I call “harp happiness:” playing the music you want to play the way you want to play it, with musicality, confidence and joy. That’s harp happiness for me, but I think it translates to whatever instrument you play.
I believe that for most musicians, even professional ones, this is a valid definition of success. Without being able to experience the joy in making music, it doesn’t matter how brilliantly you play or how much money you make at it. Music, like all art, is deeply personal and is most rewarding when it brings personal fulfilment.
Ultimately, your success in your musical pursuits, whatever they are, is dependent on your finding that fulfilment. In my experience, successful musicians of every stripe share three critical qualities. Of course there are other important factors in your musical success, but these three will give you a huge head start.
First on my list is courage. Not just the courage to step out and perform, although that surely requires fortitude. I also mean the courage to attempt something new, to practice, to persevere. Particularly necessary is the courage to allow yourself to make mistakes as you practice and perform without guilt or fear.
I was asked not long ago if I had made any mistakes for which I couldn’t forgive myself. The question surprised me; I had never thought in those terms before. I could answer in truth that no, my mistakes were only – mistakes. If I couldn’t forgive myself for some wrong notes - and I’ve played plenty – I would have had to give up playing.
Music isn’t about perfection; it’s about creating something that didn’t exist a minute before and is already a memory. Mistakes don’t last. The courageous musicians do.
Persistence is an obvious follow-up to courage. When your courage threatens to fail, persistence will keep you forging ahead.
That piece you’re struggling with will become music if you keep working at it. Your technique will become more fluid and flexible given enough time and attention. If this performance doesn’t go well, figure out what you need to do differently next time.
Just don’t confuse persistence with stubbornness. Look for solutions that will take you around obstacles rather than trying to plow through them, and enlist the help of a teacher, coach or colleague when you need it.
We musicians need more than a usual amount of belief in our makeup. Let’s face it, every note is a matter of trust: trust in our practice, our fingers, our memory, our reading. We are constantly balancing on a high wire over an abyss. That would be a stressful position, if we didn’t believe.
But we do believe. We believe in the beauty of music and the joy it can bring us and others. We believe in the power of practice and the growth we experience. We believe in the community of musicians with whom we share this special connection. We believe that one day our hard work will pay off.
And it will, I guarantee it. But I can say with almost as much certainty that the payoff may not come in the way you expect. Musical joy, reward, harp happiness, whatever you call success is a sneaky thing. It’s likely to come on you in the most surprising moments and guises. Be courageous, be persistent and be prepared.