Just to start things going, here is an essay I wrote for the inauguration of the orchestral website, www.polyphonic.org. The theme: defining the American orchestral musician. I hope this essay will serve to instigate coversations with readers about the music industry, all things instrumental (including flute) and anything else about which anyone would like to solicit my $0.02. Erich G
DEFINING SELF AND MIND
by Erich Graf, Principal flutist, Utah Symphony, 1976-2012
A creative artist leads neither the most stable nor conventional life. The artist embarks on an exciting and ultimately gratifying journey in which the destination is existential: the acquisition of efficacy and wisdom. In attempting to pinpoint defining issues and events in my career, I have considered both my successes and failures. The failures have been as important as the successes, if not more illuminating. Learning to “cope” is a complex mechanism.
After more than thirty years in the orchestral music business, the last thirteen in a dual role as player and labor official, I live in the best of all worlds, although my journey has been a circuitous one. This journey began in the early 1970’s when I wrote a Conscientious Objector letter to exempt myself from military service during the Viet Nam war. I am not a Quaker, and it may appear that writing a letter based on the pursuit of an aesthetic as a religion and God as a "higher aesthetic" would be an exercise in futility. It wasn't. Fortunately, I never had to submit the letter. I doubt that the Selective Service System would have accepted my argument, anyway. My epiphany was the act of writing the letter, especially since it was my first conscious act of self definition. This process synthesized my thoughts into a primer of life lessons that I have embraced as an orchestra and labor professional for many years.
The applications are numerous. While attempting to verbalize the elusive aesthetic I was seeking, I learned that I had a passion for the creative arts, or more specifically, the act of making something that didn't exist before. My conclusion was that "pursuit of an aesthetic" was to observe and portray the essence and beauty of life. Additionally, I believe that communication through the performing arts medium is a form of humanitarianism, and humanitarianism is the foundation of a devotional life. This realization made long ago has continued to provide me with inner fulfillment. The corollary lesson learned involved an understanding of the role that self-discipline must play in an artist's routine.
Mentors and role models are summarily important to anyone who is attempting to develop and hone a skill. For performing artists-in-training, mentors become our role models. There is, however, a difference between “role-modeling” and “idolatry.” On my trek toward becoming a professional orchestral musician, I became acquainted with many individuals whom I deeply admired and respected. In this regard, judiciousness was essential because I realized that merely becoming a clone would thwart my individualism. It is possible to attempt to be as charming as Zorro without riding an identical horse. The true artist is a discerning human being, and that quality plays an intrinsic part in the development of an individual’s musical style. The uniqueness of the artistic persona is a product of experience; for example, keeping eyes and ears open.
Does every potentially successful orchestra musician have to write a Conscientious Objector letter to reach a similar level of self-knowledge? Of course not. There are many different opportunities for self-discovery and definition. I do feel that an individual with artistic ambitions must acquire self-knowledge to acquire the necessary survival skills for success.
Nowadays, social communication skills are intrinsic to an artist’s survival. Much of our success in the present economy depends on our ability to communicate and connect with the public on a multitude of extra-musical levels. Many people we meet are potential supporters or donors. Few people are born with innate social skills.
I recently met a musician who traded a successful performance career for a position in corporate sales. After hearing his verbose but convincing corporate sales-pitch, I said to him that he must be absolutely “talked out” by the end of the day. His reply was that when he was practicing and performing, he could spend 4-5 days without speaking to anyone. Apparently, that sense of isolation was unsatisfactory to him. Well, to each his own, but to avoid extreme polarities in decision-making processes, our non-musical communication skills must be addressed and enhanced in order to avoid “burn-out” and artistic stagnation.
I’ve never regretted any of my activities in the communication and participation genres, whether it was math, Latin, Shakespeare or creative writing. One of the aspects of musical performance that can “set you apart” is exhibiting a true understanding of musical and compositional architecture. Without it, your colleagues, your conductor and your audience may be bored without actually knowing why. A perception of musical architecture is incumbent upon an understanding of “life” architecture, which, in our regimen, is composed of personal structure and discipline: art is life, life is art.
All this said, one of the difficulties we encounter is balancing the diversity we must seek to broaden our experience with the total immersion necessary to build skill and self-confidence. Total immersion is not only practicing an instrument, but also seeking environments in which people with similar passions and goals congregate; such as master classes, music camps and summer festivals. Any fine performance is a product of physical prowess and thought. “Thought” must include the process of synthesizing musical ideas and criticism. Every waking moment is part of the life experience, some moments are more interesting and productive than others, but life experience is enriching, strengthening and makes us wiser; with this wisdom comes profundity in performance.
Conservatory training teaches that success is a barometer of self-worth, which is a fallacy and can wound self-esteem. In the conservatory environment, success may be defined as winning 1st chair or a concerto competition and, ultimately, landing a coveted “job” somewhere. It is necessary to believe and understand the old adage “Life is not fair,” because in our business this is not merely an “old saw,” it is a way of life.
An orchestra, while a magnificent vehicle to communicate Man’s higher calling, is also a microcosmic family; one hundred distinct personalities living in the same proximity as ants in an ant farm. Inequities abound because although all individuals are “equated” by a Collective Bargaining Agreement (commonly referred to as the “contract”), they do not receive equal treatment because life is not fair. What causes this? It is simply the human factor; the difference between “flesh and blood” and “paper and ink.” In the orchestral workplace, someone is always going to make more money and someone else or some other section is going to receive the coveted “solo bow” at a performance’s conclusion. The Piece de Résistance? Someone is granted time-off when your request is denied. While these inequities are not earth-shattering in comparison to existential items like the human condition, mortality and world peace, they are serious within the orchestra’s world; a small planet in the universe that is Mankind.
On those occasions when orchestra politics become unusually bitter and vicious, it is because the stakes are so low. Indeed, under the tip of the iceberg that is the shimmering tone and the elegantly turned phrase, music is a business and we must also become businesspeople. Few people in the creative arts are privileged to live outside the constraint of a budget. More conservative and less venturesome careers can be far more lucrative and stable.
Through discipline and experience, I have made my routine as “lean and clean” as possible. My initial committee service was not until my 17th season in the Utah Symphony. Achieving comfort as an instrumentalist has always been my first priority, and I didn’t seek any additional personal focus until I had achieved this goal. My mentor once said to me that it takes many years for “everything to go right” on stage. I believe he was correct, and by the way, I’m still looking forward to that date.
On the date I accepted a role in symphony governance as an Orchestra Committee member (which led to the eventual Presidency of Local 104, American Federation of Musicians, Salt Lake City) was the point where the “book-learnin” component of my professional career actually began; and I was already 20 years beyond my Juilliard experience.
Any savvy individual can learn how to make contacts in the music business simply by being “there,” by arriving on-time, armed with a pencil, and being prepared. However, there’s more: a plethora of communication skills, business acumen and tactical maneuvers to weave one’s way through the complex dynamic of orchestral life. In this workplace, diplomacy is the recipe for success. How something is said is as important as what is said. Ultimately, the most significant caveat for ongoing survival and success is to learn not to take people and their actions personally. Even now I need a refresher course in that practice at least eight days a week.
Personally, there is nothing more exciting and gratifying than individuals in a group who combine their collective egos into one entity to produce great art. When this confluence of ideas causes friction and requires interpretation, I can don my labor hat and attempt to help. Years ago in Sunday school I learned that love of one's fellow man is the basis of all existence. Whenever anyone asks me how I can "stand" running a labor union, my reply is because I care for people.
In summary, my persona as a professional orchestral musician is the sum of my experiences. Experience is a respiring and pulsing element of life, and its acquisition engenders excitement and a creative spark for the artist. Risks must be embraced and challenges pursued with mind and eyes open to sustain the capacity to learn. Here is a smorgasbord! The price of admission to it for the artist is a commitment to be a perpetual student of Life.