experimental music

Saying yes

When I was a student at Oberlin, a common refrain of advice from visiting artists and professors alike was, “Always say yes, and see where it takes you.” I took that advice to heart for a long time, and in some ways I still follow that advice. Saying yes led to opportunities like competing at the Fischoff Competition, traveling to China and Latin America, teaching students in Spanish, performing in Carnegie Hall, and meeting a lot of interesting composers. Saying yes also led to some pretty dismal gigs, some questionable videos that are permanently on the internet, and at least one embarassing appearance on public access TV with a didgeridoo.

My take on this now, with a little more experience, is that always saying yes is the wrong advice. “Always say yes” could just be you flailing around with too many collaborations. Have a vision for your career and try to do things that fit with that vision. Or, at the very least, know what you DON’T want, and stay away from anything that seems like that. But ultimately, be flexible. No one really knows what musicians’ lives will be like in twenty years. Sometimes we don’t know what we’re good at until we’re doing it. Sometimes our talents come together in strange ways that we wouldn’t have been able to plan (example: the classical violinist who is also an aerialist and now works for Cirque de Soleil).

What I tell my students now is to say yes to anything traditional that pays, like orchestral work. Be very choosy with projects that don’t pay at all: ask yourself whether it will make you a better musician. And for those paying non-traditional musical projects, follow your inner esthetic.