By Caitlin Kelly
Here is a powerful essay by British pianist James Rhodes, from The Guardian, about the many sacrifices he’s made for his music:
Admittedly I went a little extreme – no income for five years, six
hours a day of intense practice, monthly four-day long lessons with a
brilliant and psychopathic teacher in Verona, a hunger for something
that was so necessary it cost me my marriage, nine months in a mental
hospital, most of my dignity and about 35lbs in weight. And the pot of
gold at the end of the rainbow is not perhaps the Disney ending I’d
envisaged as I lay in bed aged 10 listening to Horowitz devouring Rachmaninov at Carnegie Hall.
My life involves endless hours of repetitive and frustrating practising,
lonely hotel rooms, dodgy pianos, aggressively bitchy reviews,
isolation, confusing airline reward programmes, physiotherapy, stretches
of nervous boredom (counting ceiling tiles backstage as the house
slowly fills up) punctuated by short moments of extreme pressure
(playing 120,000 notes from memory in the right order with the right
fingers, the right sound, the right pedalling while chatting about the
composers and pieces and knowing there are critics, recording devices,
my mum, the ghosts of the past, all there watching), and perhaps most
crushingly, the realisation that I will never, ever give the perfect
recital. It can only ever, with luck, hard work and a hefty dose of
self-forgiveness, be “good enough”.
I find this an interesting, and extremely rare, admission of what it’s like to achieve and sustain public excellence.
We see and hear, and applaud, (or boo or yawn at), the final product of many talented hard-working people, but often have absolutely no idea what it took to get them there — onto the concert stage, into the corps de ballet, onto the bookstore shelf or into the kitchen of a fine restaurant.
I’m fascinated by process, always hungry to hear how others are doing it and what, if anything, they have had to give up along the way. By the time we see someone becoming famous and, possibly, well-paid for their talents, we’re really looking at an iceberg — seeing barely 10 percent of their story, the other 90 percent often being years, even decades, of study and practice and rejection and failure that led up to this moment.
I think it’s worth reading these stories as a way of thinking about our own choices:
How much longer will I devote to this project?
What I never achieve my goal?
Are there smaller, more private, less lucrative successes that would also satisfy me?
If not, why not?
What am I willing to give up?
How much will I regret those losses?
I weary of the widespread fantasy that “everyone’s a writer.” They’re not!
It is damn hard to become very good at something.
Here’s a great recent post by a professional conductor talking about this, chosen for Freshly Pressed:
Recent research and a popular book have theorized that it takes 10,000 hours for a human to become proficient and considered an expert at something. It seems so easy: Put in the Time, Collect the Dime. I think most adults can see some truth in this theory based on their own experiences. Driving a car is a great example. While we are learning, we are cognizant of every movement, every decision, every possibility. After time, we become very natural at it. It almost becomes a reflexive action. (For example, when’s the last time you thought about—really concentrated on—operating the turn signal?)
What makes it interesting is that it could apply to anything, from knitting to playing the violin. The implications for an art form are obvious and the research pointers are fairly sound. However my question is: Is it enough to make good art?
It is even harder, depending on a wide variety of external circumstances — do you have kids? A big mortgage? Student debt? Poor health? — to make a lot of money doing something purely creative, versus working for The Man and taking home a steady paycheck.
I love this multi-media piece about jockeys in Nairobi — the only track for 3,300 miles. They want it badly!
At Ngong Racecourse in Nairobi, Kenya, the only track in a 3,300-mile swath of Africa between Egypt and Zimbabwe, the jockeys struggle to earn $20 a ride, even in the big races. For the country’s biggest race, the Kenya Derby, the winning horse’s owner may take home little more than $7,200. Grooms, who wake up at 4:30 six mornings a week to muck out stables and brush down horses, make less than $100 a month. Yet, the dwindling numbers of trainers, jockeys, owners and breeders in Kenya are deeply committed to keeping the sport alive.
I started working for Canada’s best newspaper, The Globe and Mail, at 26, after applying for a staff job every year for eight years. I eventually wanted to come to New York and so, after a day’s work, also worked as a stringer (contacts I sought out) for Time, The Boston Globe and the Miami Herald. I needed to find American editors who liked my work and to up my game.
Knowing I planned to leave Toronto within a few years also meant not settling down and getting married and having kids, (not a dream of mine anyway.) I moved to New Hampshire in 1988, leaving family, friends, career and country, then moved to New York just in time for a horrible recession, with no job. I got one after six months, earning $5,000 less in March 1990 than I’d made in Montreal in September 1986 — in a much costlier place to live.
Every move we make is a choice that carries consequences and every one carries a cost — physical, emotional, spiritual, financial, professional. Sometimes all of those at once!
That’s why they’re called sacrifices, and why it’s so much nicer to just avoid them. And the worst fear, perhaps, is that you make a ton of them and still don’t get what it was you really wanted.
So it helps to figure out what you really want — the fancy job title and shiny new car or a life with enough room in it to travel three months every year? A bunch of kids or the creative freedom to fail at new ideas and still pay your monthly bills? A loving spouse or the sort of work that moves you from one conflict spot to the next, in an NGO or aid work or journalism? (They are not all either/or, but they will enact sacrifices.)
No matter who you are or where you live or what you hope to achieve in life — non-materially — the fewer your financial obligations, the easier it is to focus on that.
Do you have a specific dream you’re trying to achieve?
What are you willing to do — to give up — to get there?