Be Nice

There it is, right in the title: my main piece of professional advice. Be nice. Now, the notion that I'M the one giving this advice is laughable for those who went to school with me or knew me early in my professional career, because "being nice" was never very high on my agenda. But having spent a couple of decades in the music business - as a tenured professor, an orchestral player, a chamber musician, and now a producer/performer in New York City - take my advice and let me have taken a few hits you don't need to take: be nice.

 When I was a senior at Indiana in 1993, a freelance musician from New York came and spoke to the senior class about the reality of making a living as a musician (I wish I could recall who that was, but I don't). She gave us copies of this book, "Making Music in Looking Glass Land", which is about the details of being a working musician - press kits, headshots, resumes, and many other details. She also gave us this advice: be nice.

Well, all of that might as well have come from Mars.

First of all, every major school of music in the early 90s was holding on to a very old model of professional development. Almost all of my own training was pointed toward one direction: getting a job in an orchestra. So professional development basically consisted of "here's how you take an audition, now good luck to you". That was basically it. So when this person arrived with the news that there was so much more to being a working musician that I had ever even imagined, it came as a real shock to my system. I thought you just won a job and then you were set. It blew my mind and, frankly, intimidated the shit out of me.

And then there was the nice thing.

22-year-old me (really just an exposed id at that point) was like, "get the fuck outta here with that shit. If I come in there and kick ass, that's how I'll win a job. It doesn't matter if you smile if you can nail everything!"

Guess what? It matters.

It matters even more than ever, actually. The level is very high out there, and only getting better. At any level of job, from major principal auditions through adjunct professorships to regional sublists, the likelihood is that there are at least 20 people who could do the job as well as each other. In many situations you're talking about a multi-year commitment, not to speak of tenured jobs, where you're likely to work with the same people for a decade or more. The simple truth is, no one wants to work with an asshole. And in today's environment, one doesn't have to. Showing up on time with positive energy goes a very long way, especially in a field so full of daily pressures, travel, and such. That's not to say you can't be sarcastic, acerbic, or the like. In fact, those are net positives. Just be like The Fonz, and be cool. You want to give them every reason to call you back.

More than that, being nice is just a better way to move through the world. Again, this has not been my main mode of being my entire life. In fact, I would say that for the first 40 years or so of my life, I was a miserable prick. I remember one bit of advice I got from Elsa Ludewig-Verdehr, who was my teacher during my doctoral work. I could be fairly volatile at the time, and I must have displayed my temper or some such, and she took me into her office. Quite gently, and really without judgement (she is wise), she said, "you know, Chris, what you really want to do is to make people's days better when they see you. You don't want to make someone's day worse for having run into you". She was, of course, right. And I did hear it, though it took me some time to be able to be that person. Therapy helped. 

Be good to each other. Be kind and generous to your fellow musicians and friends. There's my professional advice.