Defining Success

Life is a series of decisions, and I’ve made my share of bad ones.  In 2008, I got the news that Ooghedy Booghedy, a solo bassoon piece of mine, would be performed in California at a Society of Composers convention.  At the time, I had not been marketing my music very much, so I was thrilled to have a piece chosen for a professional conference.  In my zest for a performance however, I overlooked the fact that the performance was on November 1.  In order to make it, I would miss spending time with my kids on Halloween. 

I ultimately decided to attend the performance.  Upon returning home from the conference and looking at the pictures of my kids traipsing around proudly in their Halloween garb, I realized that I had made a mistake – a big one!  Kids only enjoy seven or eight Halloweens before they become ‘too big’ for the occasion, and I had missed one of the rare opportunities to experience it with them.  After learning my lesson, I vowed to never again compromise important family events. 

In his book The Savvy Musician, David Cutler talks about the biographies of two individuals.  The first has had thousands of international performances at major concert venues, glowing reviews in major media publications, and a devoted fan following that drives for hours to hear his latest musical interpretation.  This individual is an obvious success story.

The second individual is a alcoholic, whose family is broken, and his kids would just as soon never see him again.  It’s obvious that this individual is the exact opposite of success.  He has wasted his life, and filled it with all of the wrong things.

But, as it turns out, these are two different biographies of the same individual.  They tell the story of an artist so consumed with his own success, that his family pays the ultimate price for it.

I find story of the two competing biographies quite compelling, because there are so many examples of artists throughout history that have a similar biography – Modest Mussorgsky and Johann Strauss are a few names that come immediately to mind. 

As an artist, I understand how engrossing and all encompassing the process of creation can be, and how easy it would be to ‘lose myself’ in my art while ignoring my family. 

But, as illustrated by the tale of the two biographies, there are certainly several differing ways to define success and failure.  So the question for each person (whether they are an artist or not) ultimately becomes, what will your full biography say when you are no longer here?  Is it more important that one is remembered for writing a piece of music, or for being a good parent? 

Certainly, there can be middle ground on how this question is answered, but on an almost daily basis, we must choose whether to…

  • play catch or write music
  • help with homework or update our website
  • talk with a spouse or finish ‘one last email’ to a potential performer
Choose wisely, my friends…. there’s a lot at stake.  For my money, I’ll nearly always choose to be a successful father over being a successful composer.   Being a successful composer can wait, until my kids are at an age where they are a little more self-reliant.  Even then, though, I’ll try to make every basketball game, concert, and theatrical production possible.  In the grand scheme of things, their ultimate success is more important than mine anyway.


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