What makes a top-tier performer other than talent?

I’m serious — people often don’t think about this. If you really want to “make it” as one of the top-tier performers in any discipline (classical, rock, dance, whatever), you really do need more than just talent and training. If you are a brilliant musician and you lack anything listed below, it either won’t happen or it won’t end well.

  1. The ability to function well on little sleep. If you revert to subhuman primate on anything less than 9 hours of sleep a night, you will not cope with that life. This alone would completely disqualify me from touring. Completely.
  2. The ability to handle money like a CPA and function hand-to-mouth without freaking out from stress or acting like a bumpkin with a winning lottery ticket. You will not have a guaranteed monthly salary check with a predictable number on it. And if you think the 1040EZ form is scary, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Welcome to Paperwork Hell every tax season. Health insurance? What’s that? If for any reason, this all freaks you out (all this is probably the scariest stuff in the list to me), you aren’t going to make it. And if you start living ghetto, you will discover that $34 million dollars doesn’t buy what you think it will.
  3. The ability to remain sane despite total lack of “alone time.” Top-tier musicians are often constantly surrounded by people and also lonely. If you need peace and quiet and time alone, you will not do well as a touring top-tier performer. I mean, we’re talking about people who have often spent their entire childhoods willingly sitting in their bedrooms messing around on musical instruments instead of socializing, and who are suddenly dealing with a life wherein no matter where they turn, someone is constantly tugging on their pant leg trying to get their attention. Many of them don’t adjust well to it.
  4. The ability to maintain good personal relationships despite being surrounded by constant activity, noise, and temptation. This one routinely shoots people in the ass, and in the most tragi-comic ways. The world is littered with well-known artists whose personal lives are an unraveled mess because of this. If you need close relationships to function but can’t keep a level head in the midst of chaos, your life is going to rapidly turn into a Jerry Springer episode. You know the one: “My Man Done Screwed the Babysitter,” part 648. Congratulations: you spent your entire life learning how to play that instrument and all you have to show for it is that your kids won’t talk to you.
  5. The ability to judge character well. You’d better be able to tell a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and keep yourself surrounded by a strong core of people you can trust. This is closely related to #4. If you piss off and screw over all of the people who are closest to you, you will be left with nothing but wolves: the guy who wants you to try heroin because he just happens to sell it, and the tabloid hanger-on who wants to marry you for your money almost as much as she wants to divorce you for it. Good luck.
  6. Closely related to the above is the ability to keep your head around free alcohol and drugs. And it’s not just pop and rock musicians that have to worry about that.

Most top-tier performers, whether we’re talking about Sarah Chang or David Bowie, are impromptu self-starter businesspeople. They essentially run themselves as a business. And the above skills are all desperately needed skills for musicians who want to make a living off of their art that have nothing to do with good technique or training. Yes, your ability to play a three-octave Db scale on that cello actually matters less than your ability to navigate the weirdness that is a 1040 form and all of the various schedules for a self-owned business.

And yet these skills — the ability not only to play your instrument better than any mere mortal but to run a business in the process and stay sane — are not often found among traditionally artsy personalities. How many CEOs do you know of who can execute a perfect trill? Even the ones who “make it” as top-level artists often end up imploding because of the stress of the life — they have the talent, training, and ambition, and they even have the ability to get on stage and do it, but they don’t have the ability to stay grounded and sane in the midst of a very haphazard life. Or they can’t handle money and end up frittering it away on stupid things (like solid gold Rolexes and $11 million marble floors for their bathrooms, or simply heroin). Or they get scared of the contract they are expected to sign and don’t know how to decipher it, and so are either taken advantage of or run away.

I think that’s partly why so many highly trained classical musicians love the idea of working in an orchestra. You get to just play, plus you have a stable paycheck that comes every month, you tour under a comparatively sane schedule (no 180 road performances a year like some pop or rock acts), you have a union behind you so it doesn’t get too crazy. It’s like being a session player — you get paid to play beautiful music with some brilliantly talented people, plus you get to go home and sleep in your own bed at night.