Steven Isserlis’ inspiring suggestions to young musicians

The great British cellist Steven Isserlis published a very personal and involving post on his Facebook page, addressed to young musicians, talking about career and how to build a successful and happy life: “everybody will suffer setbacks at some time or another in their career; and sometimes it’s the best thing that can happen to them.”

Don’t get discouraged!

by Steven Isserlis

Well, the difficult time of year has come and gone again – the time just after Christmas. I know that for some people it’s Christmas itself that is difficult; but for my friend and occasional assistant David Waterman and myself, it’s the time just afterwards, when we listen to audition tapes for our course at IMS Prussia Cove, that challenges us. It’s not, I hasten to add, the low quality of the applicants that make life so tricky. It’s exactly the opposite problem – that there are SO many good and special players. (I should also admit that there’s a lot of pleasure in that, as well – it’s just that it makes life tricky!) This year particularly, we were struck forcibly by how many strong musical personalities emerged from the recordings – real, individual voices. And yet, because both time and space are so limited at the seminar, we can only accept a very small percentage of the applicants.

It may well be that some people may just shrug, or even be relieved, when the refusal letter arrives; but I am aware that for others, it will be something of a blow. Nobody likes rejection – and there is much of it in musical life. So how to cope with it? My friend the violinist Robert McDuffie (a great story-teller) once told me about a time when he had had an engagement cancelled, or something of the sort, and was feeling upset. At that time, Rostropovich’s daughters Elena and Olga were living in New York; Bobby was friendly with them, so he called them in order to pour his heart out. It so happened that Slava was staying at their apartment that night, and overheard the conversation. ‘Tell Bobbie to come over,’ he ordered. Bobbie duly arrived, and Slava gave him a pep talk. ‘Bobbie, you will be rejected over and over again,’ was his message. ‘You have to take it in your stride – it’s just part of being a musician.’

I know that careers are fraught in any discipline, but (without wanting to sound precious), I do feel that the particular trouble with rejection in the arts is that, as a musician, actor, painter or whatever, we are somehow exposing something deep inside ourselves – and that puts us in a vulnerable position. Of course, we musicians can parry the blow with reasons: ‘My instrument wasn’t on good form’, ‘The acoustics were awful’, or – most often (and perhaps most often true) – ‘The judges don’t know a thing’. But still – it hurts; and it results in self-doubt (or rather, in many cases it exacerbates the self-doubt that we already carry within us) .

Self-doubt, though, is essential for a musician; there are some without that quality – and I for one find them intensely boring, if not offensive. One has to have enough confidence to go onstage and perform, of course; but at least equally important is to retain enough self-criticism to know that, no matter how well a concert has gone, there is room for – need for – improvement. One has constantly to keep questioning. That goes for everybody, in every aspect of music – or the other arts.

The rejection, and resulting feelings of insecurity, won’t stop as one gets older (even though people’s attitudes may tend to soften somewhat; thank goodness I am at an age now where most conductors don’t feel it their God-given duty to tell me exactly how to play a concerto, and demonstratively conduct me throughout rehearsal and performance!) Many of my friends in their 50s and 60s are riding high in their careers; but that doesn’t stop them from getting depressed and discouraged by a bad review, a nasty comment on social media, or whatever. I’m aware, though, that for young people particularly, encouragement is essential – and rejection most hurtful. I still remember, all too clearly, the feelings of despair that overtook me when I failed my BBC audition twice, or when I entered almost my only (and certainly my last) public competition, and was humiliatingly knocked out in the first round. I really thought then that I wouldn’t make it at all in the music world, even though becoming a musician had been the only thing I had wanted to do with my life since the age of ten. I was lucky in that, thanks to encouragement from friends and family, I kept going. That was and is essential; everybody needs some sort of positive feedback from outside to combat any demons within – that’s what friends and families are for!

One’s expectations have to be realistic, naturally; everyone has to find their own niche. As Schumann puts it, ‘If everyone were to play first violin, we would have no orchestra’. Music needs a combination of teachers, chamber-music players, orchestral musicians, soloists – they are all equally vital parts of the organism that constitutes musical life. (And the people who continue to care about music even when they have decided that the profession is not for them are also deeply valuable –  they are our most discerning audience.) But giving up just because you feel you’ve been unfairly or unkindly rejected, or you don’t feel you’ve reached exactly the position that you feel you deserve, should not be an option. Don’t believe that other musicians are living in a Facebook-type beautiful, easy life – they’re not. Everybody will suffer setbacks at some time or another in their career; and sometimes it’s the best thing that can happen to them. We all have to keep constantly surmounting obstacles, accepting them – and continuing to do the best we can to follow our dreams. If they’re about music, they’re beautiful dreams!