Defining your success as a musician — guest blog by Christopher Davis

This month, I’m featuring comments by a dear friend, colleague, and badass bass trombonist: Chris Davis.  Chris and I met in graduate school at Northwestern, and we became fast friends.  We would spend afternoons playing Adam routines on the music school lawn overlooking Lake Michigan, stay up late in the recital hall playing drones, duets, and excerpts, and play mock auditions for each other.  Of course, we’d hang out and drink beer, too.  What immediately impressed me about Chris was his work ethic.  I’ve met few people, if any, who have the work ethic that Chris exhibits.  At one point, I remember Chris working the door at a local bar from 9pm-3am, going home to sleep for a couple hours, waking up to work the stocking shift at Menard’s (like Home Depot), then STILL being the first guy in the practice rooms the next morning!!  Playing-wise, Chris’s sensitivity on the bass trombone, warmth of sound, and ability to play EXTREMELY soft was a constant inspiration, especially in our trombone quartet.

OK, enough praise to Chris — I’m sure he is turning red while reading this.  This month’s topic deals with how we define success as musicians.  In school — or at least my school — there was so much emphasis on winning a major orchestra job that it was easy to lose sight of other possibilities in the music field.  This emphasis mostly came from peers, not from the faculty.  I remember one particular conversation with a freshman trumpet player where he said “WHEN I win by big job” and not “IF I win my big job.”  (He’s now in the New York Philharmonic, by the way) Of course, this kind of confidence is necessary to succeed in winning an audition, but this culture is also a double-edged sword.  What happens if you don’t win a big job, or discover that there are other things that fulfill you just as much or even more?

The reason I asked Chris to contribute this month is that he has wrestled with this concept and has found complete happiness in a diversified career.  He has performed with some of the country’s top orchestras, including Chicago, Minnesota, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Chicago Lyric Opera and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, been a New World Symphony fellow and a Pittsburgh Symphony African-American fellow, secured teaching positions at Northwestern University and Wheaton College, is a wonderful father, and also referees basketball.  Most of these opportunities were secured not by an audition on one given day, but from a career of auditioning everyday in the way he approaches playing, musical citizenship, and interpersonal relationships.  In my mind, this makes one MORE successful than winning an audition, because freelancing really is a matter of proving yourself every day.

Thank you, Chris, for your insights and taking the time to share them with us!  I wish I had this wisdom while still in school.

Defining your success as a musician

By: Christopher P Davis
Lecturer of Trombone at Northwestern University and Wheaton Conservatory

At one point in my life, the ultimate definition of my success was winning a job in a major symphony orchestra. I have had many peaks and valleys throughout my voyage and after a while the audition circuit can become tedious, often times breaking ones confidence in their abilities. After strings of advancing and walking at auditions, I was at a point where I was letting the result of an audition determine my worth as a musician. In the midst of self-turmoil, I honestly felt that I wasn’t successful because I had yet to win a job in an orchestra. It is at this point in my life that I had to ask myself, what is my definition of success?

I’ve come to the conclusion that success in any category of life is defined by the individual. In order for you to figure this out, one has to ask a course of difficult questions. For example, what are my motives for pursuing this field? What do I really want to do with my life? How long do I want to take to achieve this goal? What are the steps to achieving said success? How much will I have to sacrifice to succeed? Is this what I want out of my life? After a point of self-evaluation, I came to the conclusion that I was indeed successful and that my pursuit of the “orchestral dream job” was actually more about my ego than my genuine love for orchestral music. At this same time I realized that I was extremely fortunate and blessed to have done so much in my career and that there were people who hadn’t accomplished nearly as much as me.

I have friends and colleagues that feel that their definition of success is winning an orchestral job. I have a friend who is a college professor at a big named school. I also have colleagues that are happy teaching Jr. High or High School Band even though they would be a tremendous player. These band directors give 100% to the craft and they are extremely successful at what they do and are ultimately happy with their lives. One of my best friends defines his success by his marketing and podcast savvy to ultimately make a living in music and to start an online music school. Another friend is a fabulous flutist and she uses her music degree to teach general music and private lessons to travel the world during the summers. There is no right or wrong answer to your definition of success, as long as you as an individual are at peace with your decision. Just know that there are various career paths within music where you can be successful.

I have always had great educators present throughout my career, starting with my first band director John Weber at Brooks Middle School, Phillip Crews at Thornton Township High School, Dr. Thomas Streeter at Illinois Wesleyan, and Michael Mulcahy at Northwestern. All of these individuals were selfless when working with students and always pushed us to be our best. Throughout the years, I’ve always enjoyed sharing information with people and my students can attest that I am very generous with my time. I started to think about giving back to others just as my teachers did with me. My mindset has always been – “what’s next”? This is when I decided to try to add a branch to the tree of

the things that I have done. In my short career, I have had a great performance experience, studied with amazing teachers, and have been a few places. If I wanted to expand from what I had already done, I realized that I had to get my “paperwork” together. So I started by making my Curriculum Vitae, Teaching Philosophy, and Cover letter; explaining how to formulate those documents is a different article in itself.

I then applied for a couple of teaching positions and was surprisingly called back for 2 of the 3 jobs. These callbacks (success) taught me that, In the process of diversifying my career, I could do many things that I always wanted to do, for example, record CD’s, tour, perform recitals and teach. I realized that I still can perform and give back at the same time. To me, this is the ultimate definition of success. I’m not saying that I will never take another orchestral audition, but I’ve eliminated the extraneous stress in my life by embracing the many different successes that I have had while continuing to try to improve as a musician, trombonist and now educator. With this mindset, I know I will be happy and successful teaching and sharing music with others.

My only advice to you is to define what you feel success is, connect the dots of what you need to do in order to achieve said success, and be fearless in your pursuit of it. I was in a masterclass held by John Clayton (Jazz Bassist) while a member of the Disney Band in California in 2002 and he shared the most poetic but simple quote, “If you want to be successful in music, don’t quit!” John then proceeded to explain various degrees of success within music. If your ultimate success is to become an owner of a music store, a private lesson instructor, jazz mogul, or an orchestral player you can be successful in this if you just don’t quit.