Career Path for the Performer

(and how to outwit the present)

By on 4-19-2010 in Music Business Insight

by Gary Powell

Gary Powell-Jesus Christ Superstar 1980There is a point in the development of your performing career at which your own vision of self must become disordered. This is a time and place where your prevailing reality is challenged. For me it came at age twenty-seven in Los Angeles.

Let’s say you are a pre-teen who loves to perform. Maybe you are even talented in doing your literal and proverbial tap dance. Even the most jaded audience enjoy watching your youthful energy. You will soon be asked to perform for many talent shows, Rotary Clubs, weddings and funerals. You have sung the National Anthem dozens of times at sporting events. Yes, it feels great to be in such demand. Continuing on to high school and college, your fan club increases. By now, you have already successfully adjusted to having competition for the lead role in the school musical or ballet. You have usually won these auditions and the infrequent loss of a role doesn’t freak you out….BUT the “shift” still hasn’t happened yet.

During college your talent may be discovered by a summer camp director for boys or girls where you become the song leader, art director or dance coach. No doubt, several churches are offering you high praise to bring your talent into the fold. All this feels inspiring and motivating as now you are beginning to win scholarships and stipends. The next year you perform in a summer-stock theater. Yes, you are on a roll and are now chanting the “I’m being paid to do what I love!” mantra.

In the past, the seemingly harmless career seductions probably did not feel like seductions at all. Now they do! – Gary Powell

At this point you’ve come to terms in juggling auditions, competition from other performers, money issues, and holding a job along side your obscenely long rehearsal hours. But now comes the “shift”. At every step of your development you, the performer, thought that each of the opportunities you’ve experienced was about you. Each circumstance was earned by you and you proved your talent again and again, but now as you have matured you have noticed opportunities thinning out. Some opportunities expire expectantly like graduating from college. Other opportunities expire not from just loosing out to the competition, but loosing in a thousand other ways you had never even considered and in other ways that had nothing to do with you whatsoever. Other professional opportunities expire because you yourself have outgrown them. In the past, the seemingly harmless career seductions probably did not feel like seductions at all. Now they do! They were, at most, a major part of your continuing education and each of your performances was a mini-equivalent to your own record deal.

This is the shift. It is a simple yet broader understanding of yourself and your talent within a larger context; a context which can and must be continually negotiated for the rest of your life. Now you finally know that each of your shows and appearances were about what the show needed rather than about what you needed. As a young performer, the negotiations with yourself were processed internally and silently. Later these negotiations will be voiced and leveraged from all sides. Welcome to the magnificent world of the adult artist who learns to live and prosper through and beyond our losses, our betrayals, our self-doubt, our limitations and our competitors. When you arrive at this point, hopefully before age 27, you will stand in the spotlight you mindfully created and the mastery of your earlier professional life will light your way toward a prosperous future.

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  1. There’s no doubt that the “shift” can be affective, both positively and negatively. The way that we each deal with the shift depends a lot on our maturity, mixed in with a bit of humility. On the up-side of the shift is that point when we realize that what we do is no longer “fun,” but what we do to survive. That point when our art supports us, feeds our families and makes our car payment. However our work can still be fun, even though it’s work. Many doctors enjoy their work, but they would never do it for free. We as artists need to make that known to society.

    What happens though if the pay doesn’t come in? Are we not talented? But, we’ve been told by our high school teachers, our dance instructors, our churches that we are! Was it a lie? This is where “self awareness” comes into the picture. Our society often rewards everyone. At little league soccer games everyone gets a trophy, that tells a child he is important, and he is. However, somewhere along the way young performers have to be taught that they are a “small fish in a big pond.” Can this be done without crushing a spirit? I think with the right amount of exposure to other performers is the best way for a developing student to see this. In my high school and undergraduate years I was a big fish, my natural talent got me really far. Now looking back on that I see my arrogance, I see how much more I should have practiced to now survive in the real world. I wish I could travel back in time and kick myself in my own ass.

    What happens though if the “shift” makes us look at our careers in a different way. What if a dancer realizes that after going through 100 auditions and working with 100 choreographers that he or she might be better choreographer then a dancer? Is that bad when at first it might feel like you’re giving up on your dream. In my opinion, you’re just re-writing your dream. Sometimes opportunities present themselves in ways that we would have never expected. If anything, answer the knock at the door and see how it goes. Who says you can’t go back?

    We’ve all heard the phrase “those who can’t do, teach.” I use to think this myself. A mentor I had when I was younger told me that “the best performers make the best teachers.” There is some truth here, though I’ve met some wonderful performers who can’t articulate their art for the life of them. I’d prefer to say that “a well-versed, experienced performer makes the best teacher.” Someone who has been in his or her students’ shoes. Someone who remembers the feeling of begging for performance venues, or paying $400 for a airline ticket to audition in NYC or whose voiced cracked in front of a crowd of 1000 people. What did you learn from that experience and how can you make yourself better from it? This is an upside to the “shift.”

  2. In my experience, I think I have experienced many “shifts” in my life as an artist. Although many of them may not be as big as this “shift” from being a student artist to making a living as an artist, I think that each and every one of these experiences has made me realize how competitive the music world really is. As a young person the most life changing events of my life were switching from one school to another (ie from middle to high school, etc.) I can remember back to my first days of high school when I was assigned last chair in the lower band. It was devastating, but it just made me work even harder so that I could make it in the future. By my senior year, I was one of the top players at the school. When I arrived here at The University of Texas, I had a very similar experience. My life as a musician has already had small setbacks. Sometimes I am told that I am a great player, but setbacks like these have made me realize that I actually have to work harder in order to make a career in the music industry. Although my experiences may be somewhat unique, I believe that student artists need to strive to the top levels so that they can sometimes experience setbacks. If a student constantly stays in their comfort zone where everyone is telling them that they are great, they are not trying hard enough. These students need to get out to the real world so they can see where their competition really is. Maybe it would be a great idea for them to compete in a national competition so that they can see where they rank among their peers. Although they may rank in the top, it is likely that they do not. At the same time, if they do rank in the top, they should realize that they are only competing with their peers and that there are many talented individuals out in the world who have more experience and training than they do. Individuals who are always told that they are great at this age need to stretch themselves in order to find the people that tell them that they still have a lot of work to do. I think that all music students should have this realization that they are a small fish in a big pond long before leaving music school. It is sad to me that many do not. Having said this, I should also say that I am still a student so perhaps some of my ideas are disillusioned because I haven’t reached this “shift” yet.

  3. This article highlights the next phase of my life. As a high school student, I was constantly singing for EVERYTHING. Always being recognized for being talented and always willing to sing. The first paragraph is exactly how my life as a young performer progressed. Undergrad was a seeming let down because I suddenly had to compete with graduate students. I remained unaffected and continued working hard to perfect my craft.

    However, I had a huge “shift” when I waltzed into grad school and realized I was not special. I was just like everyone else who had been a proverbial “big fish” during their undegraduate and then came to graduate school and had to reestablish themselves within the hierarchy.

    I am now transitioning into another “shift.” I’m finishing up my master’s degree and auditioning for as many things as I can afford; all for the potential of heading into what’s next. While this scares me, I’ve assembled a plan for a myriad of what-ifs that could happen. For example, I’ve applied to remain at UT and complete a diploma program which allows me time to grow before venturing into the big world. I also have a job using my other passion in life, education, that can help foot the bill for accomplishing my dream.

    While these shifts seem scary, I’m really okay with the changes. In life, consistency is important, but change can be inspiring. When our system gets upset, we find new avenues for our creative intuitions.

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