Over the Rainbow – Views on Success

Due to its highly subjective nature, I’m going to put a big disclaimer at the beginning of this piece to highlight its very opinion-like nature. This is not gospel as most of what I write in these reflections, it’s instead the vision and opinion of someone who has thought deeply about some of these subjects and found his own path, due to years of trial and error.

What defines success as a human being is very dependent on an infinite set of variables, the same principle obviously applies to the arts world. The social context in which you were born, your culture, your values, your life experiences, your pursuits (or lack thereof), and definitely, how much time you have spent thinking about it, and the conclusions you’ve reached – they all contribute heavily to what you consider or not being successful.

Artists are an interesting kind. I feel like more often than not, students who are getting serious about being musicians usually lack some kind of long term plan for what to do with the skills they are developing. Don’t get me wrong, I understand that these things have a way of correcting themselves and the inherent meaning of our choices eventually is presented (is it?), and so being a bit lost or a bit loose on our purpose is okay, for a while. But there is definitely a difference between taking charge of the direction of your life or letting life decide for you and then adapting in some way. Sometimes it might be hard to discern between the things you’ve brought upon yourself and the things life itself forced you to figure out in order to adapt to a new circumstance. Don’t mistake going for a nice relaxed swim on a sunny beach for being caught in a tsunami. Out of context they are one and the same thing – you in the ocean – but the reasons that brought you there and what you get from it are very different.

From my short experience in a non-artistic career (yes, I have a degree in sociology), it seems like once a person starts studying a subject deeply, they start having a feeling for what would be the best outcome as a professional in that area, maybe working for X company, or maybe doing some specific kind of work that fits their preference, or making Y amount of money. Sometimes even going as far as planning their whole lives around that path, as in “I’m going to finish school, get a job at this company where I’m paid Z$ a year, buy a house and start a family”.

I don’t actually see these narratives that often in the arts world. Of course the highly uncertain nature of being an artist contributes to it, but I also feel like we get carried away by this uncertainty and use it as an excuse to have no clear path.

So what exactly is happening in the arts world? I’ll talk particularly about my field which is jazz music. I’d say one of the few branches in music where being financially stable isn’t solely dependent on a lucky shot.

Visions of success

First of all, what it means to be successful in the arts world is way more complex than in a non-artistic career. Of the top of my mind and in no particular order, here is a series of situations artists have deemed “being successful” throughout the times:

  • being respected by the community (artist’s artist)
  • being respected by the public (cult artist)
  • being respected by the critics
  • being inspiring
  • being inspired
  • making life better for others through their art
  • contributing to the very exclusive and invaluable vault of great human masterpieces
  • being an inspiring teacher and pass on your knowledge
  • being a keeper of the flame for the old masters and movements
  • pushing the boundaries of their specific artistic medium or art movement
  • being able to make art until they die
  • being able to present their art as much as possible
  • being able to produce as many possible pieces
  • being part of artists’ circles and the lifestyle associated
  • being financially stable
  • making money
  • making lots of money
  • being more appealing in some way to their gender of preference
  • having the lifestyle they desire, in whichever form it might take
  • living life to its full extent and experiencing what the world has to offer
  • escaping the corporate cubicle life
  • being in touch with the sensitive, spiritual side of life
  • pursuing the death of ego and the total unbounded immersion in your art
  • God or religion

This is definitely not an extensive list, it’s instead a 5 minute exercise that provided enough food for thought. If you think that each of these purposes can multiply into various sub-purposes and reasonings, and that you can definitely have some kind of combination of a number of them, you can probably deduct that there are no two equally ideal successful career paths among artists.

The money job

Money is a big issue so I’ve decided to take a moment to reflect specifically on its influence as an artist. Furthermore, money is just a placeholder here, you can definitely switch it for other materialistic visions of success that might not be directly related with honest innocent production of art pieces. This is only an opinion so it’s totally ok if you disagree, please don’t take it too personally.

Music and particularly jazz music is too much of a niche world to net any above average type of financial revenue. This means that if you’re going into jazz music with the same money driven purpose that a person goes into finance, then you’re probably not making the best of decisions. I know this and I’ve said it many times: “I’m fine with not making a lot of money, if I wanted to I would have chosen a different career, I’m happy with the financial sacrifices I’ve made in order to pursue different meanings from life” (like writing about these things, that gives me a lot of purpose). And, you should too probably! Jazz is hard, if you’re going into it because of money, you sure as hell have the stubbornness and drive to make it in a very financially rewarding and competitive career.

Lucky shots

Almost inherent to the artistic world is the concept of the lucky shot. The person who has some initial talent and by doing the right thing, at the right place, at the right time, in front of the right people is able to have a big break and to attain disproportionate amounts of success (in whichever form) compared to the average artist. Make no mistake, lucky shots are a part of the artistic mind, and when I started thinking about this I realised how much more common this mental process is than what we usually (want to) believe. Artists think that lucky shots are an inherent feature of those who use a more popular or entertainment-like approach to the creation of art but what I found out is the following: If you’re an artist and you’re sitting around waiting for something external to happen in your life that will push your career to the next level, you are definitely relying on a lucky shot. That can be, being called to perform in said gig; becoming bigger as a side person; waiting for your amazing last album to get media coverage; waiting for the world to find out about you; relying on an audition for an orchestra, group or school; relying on a possible grant; etc. 

Now don’t get me wrong, these things are all important to pursue as a musician but, depending on the actual probability of them becoming true, there is a limit to how much centered on them your life should be. If the next clear step in your career is to receive a specific grant and the base probability of getting said grant is 1%, you’re setting yourself for failure in a big way. And the consequences are legion. Once the results are in and you don’t make the list, you’ll be back where you started, with no plan and with a bunch of  negative feelings of failure and inadequacy as companions.

If instead the next step in your career is to compose an opera about the tragic life and death of fabric softeners around the world (now there’s a winning idea) and you’re keeping this grant thing on your peripheral vision – something that would improve things but is not exactly your main life goal – then whatever the outcome is it’s fine, since your main goal is still untouched and dependent solely on you.

The way up

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

In most success stories, one of the characteristics that is recurrent is the presence of a vision, a plan, an objective so strong and deeply felt that the person had no choice but to pursue it fully until it became reality (and this last part is the subject for another post). Pop culture is filled with these stories:

  • Jim Carrey wrote a 10 million dollar check to himself a bunch of years before he was famous
  • Louis Armstrong wanted to play in King Oliver’s band almost since the first time he picked the cornet
  • JFK put men on the moon 7 years before it actually happened, with his famous moon speech

To put it simply, if you choose to pursue one of the toughest careers there is, why not do it with a clear vision and purpose? By all means be an artist, but please have something really strong and meaningful to back you up, and if you don’t have it then go ahead and find it, and play around with it, and turn everything upside down and tear your plans and ideas a hundred times if you have to. But be mission driven. Otherwise what’s the point? To just mindlessly practice scales everyday? I thought one purpose all artists had in common was the will to escape the boring routine of the corporate world.

So I’d say there’s a couple of self-reflection exercises for you to consider. First of all, in your artistic pursuit do you have a clear purpose? A clear meaning of success or end game to what you’re doing, practicing or developing right now? What does it look like? Write down what the perfect day or week would be for you 10 years from now, and don’t fear any kind of ridiculousness, and don’t short sell yourself. You’re a creative after all, use your creativity to think big and don’t apologise to anyone for it. Most of the time, what I found out is that this exercise shows a very different reality, a kind of a misalignment I would say, with my short term goals or objectives. For example, I might be working on a technical thing on my instrument but my idea of success says that I want to have 20 records released in ten years. So the technical thing I’m working on right now isn’t quite helping me achieve that idea of success, it might be contributing to something in some very indirect way, but unless I’m spending a lot more time writing and playing my own music, then I’d say that I’m not setting myself on the right track to achieve my own personal views of success.

Second, be ready to answer the question “So where exactly are you going from here?”. As a teacher, I help people. I teach yes, but most of all I help problem solving. Now, I can bring students closer to my vision of success, but I can’t bring them closer to their vision of success if they don’t have one or if they haven’t shared it with me. I am also bound to fail in helping them succeed if their idea of success is reliant on a lucky shot, I can up the statistical probability by a tiny bit, but I am no miracle maker.

My influence as a teacher or a colleague is small compared to the people you will come across during your life: label owners, promoters, patrons, journalists, critics. All of these have the ability to change your life in one single moment. And that life changing moment heavily depends on your ability to lay out in front of them where exactly you are going from here, and having years of work done towards that goal to back you up. And yes, here is your lucky shot coming back to bite you, but by focusing on what you can actually do for yourself, you ended up increasing your chances of hitting that sweet success pot without losing yourself in the frustrations of the process, and while building up a portfolio of accomplishments. That sounds pretty successful to me, I’d say.

The ONE thing to focus on during lockdown (to promote artistic growth)

With lockdown version 2.0 now in place in Portugal, many of us are now having to face a new round of uncertain, dark and sometimes lacking in meaning days. Focusing specifically in the arts world and in musicians in particular, we will once again witness a series of interesting challenges, of which I would say the most promenint one is probably the effects of lack of motivation and feelings of depression due to the highly uncertain, unchecked and solitary nature of our work. 

There is no easy way of putting it, being a musician is tough as it is. My usual response to people who ask me about job opportunities for musicians is that they exist, but they’re only available for the very best. This is a career that rejects very strongly (and easily) people who are only average in level and commitment, a contrary situation to most careers. So when you think of how the industry has been simply decimated in this past year, it becomes apparent that these are definitely some of the toughest times we will have to endure as professional musicians.

First of all, there are two main reasons why giving up isn’t even on my mind. I think this has the potential to be the absolute worst situation that we will find ourselves in in our lifetimes. It could get worse sure, but historically, things have probably only been this bad in total war situations like WWII. This is close to rock bottom, there is a lot more room for massive improvement than there is to significant worsening. On top of that, the arts and the entertainment industry usually endure a huge boom after long term crisis situations. 

The second reason is:

“Because I don’t a have a fucking choice”

– Russel Corwin, in Six Feet Under

And not having a f*cking choice actually makes things a lot easier in your mind than having one, but that’s a subject for a different post.

It’s not easy to know exactly what one should be doing as a musician in times like this. On one hand the possibility of escaping every social and job related situation, completely guilt free, would make you think that this is the best time to tackle that huge project you’ve had in mind for many years. On the other hand, pushing through on top of an unhealthy mind and spirit doesn’t come without its own consequences. As composer Mary Kouyoumdjian puts it in her April 2020 essay for I Care If You Listen, when talking about composing from a place of grief:

While we’re often encouraged to push through writer’s block and just write something—anything—that period of grief is when I learned a valuable lesson: writing before you’re ready can cause damage. The difficulty can eat away at your confidence, and the self-imposed pressure and potential dissatisfaction with the work you create during a period of trauma can be hard to shake.


To make my point for this entry I decided to call on the expertise of March-April 2020 André Silva (that’s me) and what he wrote a month into his lockdown in New York City. I’m posting a small excerpt of my journal where I talk about what really felt important at the time. 

I decided to call this phenomenon of artists and professionals turning into amazing productivity practitioners some form of sugarcoating of a (goddamn) quarantine into an artistic residency. And I know some amazing people will do it and be amazing at it, but I fail to believe that most of us will. As usual, most of us will focus on the picture perfect social media examples and forget what it means to be human and to feel and to be frustrated. Most of us will try to do everything right only to realize that once again we’re short of our ambitions, but now there’s no outside world or real life to make us forget about it and move on and find relief in anything else. We’re locked with our frustrations for (and emphasis on this point) an UNDETERMINED amount of time.

Not many of us have experienced being locked inside of a house for two months minimum. Not many of us have an idea of how our brains will behave after days and nights of loneliness, frustration, and hopelessness. A person I know in Wuhan on day 53 of his quarantine apologised for not giving news on the days before as he was unable to leave his bed for five consecutive days due to being so overwhelmed with depression and boredom. That’s what we’re really fighting with as individuals.

That’s why I’m making the call. Taking care of your mental health should be your only purpose in life right now. Doing everything you can to feel good and reduce frustrations should be your only concern. That can mean absolutely anything for everyone but please try to understand what makes you feel bad or less accomplished and try to either stay away from it or practice being not too hard on yourself. If you need to lay on the couch watching Netflix in order to navigate through this as a healthy human being, then do it and don’t feel bad about it. I do believe that at some point the saturation of doing nothing will strike you and you’ll feel a natural healthy urge to look for ways to be productive and to feel more a part of things. 

Our brains are a dark place that we spend our lives trying to avoid and now we’re stuck inside with no real tools on how to deal with them.”

I tried to stick to a reasonable schedule in March 2020

In typical monkey brain fashion I feel a lot more confident about my possible productivity in today’s lockdown than what I felt while writing that entry. But I know where that came from, and I still remember how it felt. And I understand that it’s quite possible for it to return. And most of all, I understand that the only way to feel stable is to participate in a number of daily activities that I’ve seen time and time again having a very positive effect on me. These are of course highly personal, but there are a handful which come up again and again every time mental health discussions come up. The reason they do come up so often is because there is enough scientific data and case studies to back them up. Do not attempt to shoot down the positive effects the usual suspects can have on you without giving them a fair chance – between 4 and 6 weeks of daily implementation (or a full lockdown cycle in today’s lingo). Without further ado I’ll give you my own personal checklist of key habits:

  • 8 hours of sleep
  • Early to bed and early to rise
  • Having some form of a morning routine (cooking and eating breakfast, drinking tea, making your bed, putting on actual clothes and implementing other key habits) 
  • Meditating after breakfast and last thing before bed
  • Some form of exercise or workout
  • Some type of outside activity, like a walk, preferably in nature.
  • Some form of journaling so you have somewhere to dump overwhelming and cyclical thoughts.

I would say this takes up less than two hours to complete and if you are a musician with a very reduced (paid) workload at the moment, I would definitely say that this is the only thing you should be focusing on completing most days. Beyond the obvious and not so obvious benefits (eventually I’d like to write an individual entry for each of these topics) of these practices, there’s something deeper at play here. When you offer yourself these acts of self-care you are signalling to your brain that you matter and that your life matters in the same way that receiving a gift from a friend does. You’re saying “I do care for you, so here is 30 minutes of my precious time that you can spend guilt free, walking around these amazing woods thinking about whatever you feel like” – sounds like a dream right? 

I think any activity does the trick, so far as it is not destructive – like smoking – and doesn’t prevent a deeper form of connection with yourself – like binge watching a show. This list should be enough to get you going most days, my own experience is that I can work from a nice chill and focused place after having gone through it. During this time I also like to focus more on the small tasks that I’m accomplishing every day than on some kind of huge project that might become overwhelming and promote serious feelings of failure further down the line. If I’m working on a big project I’m not really worried about finishing it and setting deadlines for myself. Remember, you want to build up a bag of nice positive thoughts, so keep your ambitions tamed (just) for the time being. Less is more.

Finally and equally important. Be kind and gentle with yourself and your own thoughts. Mastering music is a many decades project, don’t let your mood and practice be affected by short-term perspectives, those will only derail you from the long game.

On criticism – Threading between limitation and choice

There are many instances where as musicians or artists we are subject to criticism and evaluation. These situations span from the life changing album review by an international publication, to the Christmas family dinner where your aunt will mention the color of your guitar. So having a clear path on how to approach and deal with criticism is as helpful of a skill as mastering playing major scales. Be too oblivious to it and you might miss on some important feedback, take it too seriously and you might feel emotionally overwhelmed and ultimately unable to perform your craft from a nice relaxed space.

The internet has plenty of resources and quotes on how to master dealing with criticism. Some of these resources make very valid points, although most are not exactly revolutionary. As art students we all were forced to come to terms, in our initial art or music lessons, with the fact that criticism and feedback were going to be not only important but simply a big part of our life and growth. Furthermore, it’s considered that an active approach to seeking criticism while you’re learning a craft is one of the best ways to climb the ladder of apprenticeship in a fast steady way. Being alive means existing in a plane where you are a combination of your perceptions plus the perceptions of others, we have a very good idea of our own perception, but that only tells half of the story of existing. Ultimately, if you have a curious and open mind about criticism and feedback you will be able to see the world not only from your point of view, but also from the point of view of others. As Sun Tzu would gracefully put in The Art of War:

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles…” 

At the same time, artistry is also about innovation, about following your instincts and trusting your processes. Eleanor Roosevelt when faced with hard criticism due to advocating for human right as a non elected public figure said

“Do what you feel in your heart to be right – for you’ll be criticized anyway. You’ll be damned if you do and damned if you don’t”

Although the context is totally different, I feel like there is a lot of learning from this that can be helpful in the arts world. Art is infinite, and as infinite as it is, it is also infinitely subjective. Therefore, in an ocean of infinite pressures and motives, following your heart and being honest with yourself and who you are still seems to be one of the most clear ways of producing art in an artistically ethical way (if you choose to believe in such a concept).

On to the real point of this reflection which is something a bit deeper and harder to grasp. As mentioned, art is subjective and it’s as traditional as art itself that artists are these weird misunderstood beings. They see and sing about the world through a particular lens and when they hand this lens to someone else there’s a high chance that this someone won’t be able to see much. It’s the nature of the beast. After all  J. S. Bach, widely regarded and considered the greatest and most prolific composer of all times, wouldn’t begin to get this immense recognition for more than 50 years after his death. Navigating through criticism is therefore not an exact science in the arts realm as most of you have figured out by now.

My own personal opinion after doing some research on the nature of criticism itself but also some much needed self reflection, is that there are two essential ways of producing anything in music and the arts. These are:

  1. From a place of limitation
  2. From a place of informed choice

In these two approaches lie the answer to many artistic and musical dilemmas that one might face during art production. And this is also what can help you wither between the – seek criticism VS. Follow your he(art) paradox.

I’ll use a general example that could be a common occorrence in the jazz world. First of all you need a good reproducible copy of whatever is being criticised. Of course in writing or painting, you can always refer back to the piece, but as a musician, if you didn’t record the piece of music being criticised, then it’s lost for good and you can’t really use it for this analysis. So if you’re being criticised for your performance in a lesson or a class or a session, it’s always highly recommendable to record the moments you are playing. 

Now listen clearly to the criticism and try to reduce the metaphors and communication issues in a remark like “you sound like a robot” to something as simple as “I didn’t like your articulation because it’s stiff and too mechanical” or “you could make more use of dynamics or expression devices”. And finally, listen to what you recorded and be brutally honest with yourself. Seriously, your eventual success as a musician or artist depends heavily on this! Now answer the following questions:

  • Are you truly happy about what you’re hearing in your articulation? 
  • Are you happy because it’s yours or because after researching immensely about articulation you’ve decided and settled onto something and that’s what you’re aiming for? 
  • Were you able to reproduce it the way you envision it in your mind?

Remember that most if not all great musicians play the way they do because they probably refused deliberately every other option they could think of or come in contact with. 

In all honesty, if you have a clear vision of the result you wanted to achieve and in your mind you’ve gotten close enough to that vision, that means what you did or played or composed came from a place of choice and not limitation. And in choice you follow your artistic intuition and personality and you give birth to honest artistic work. Now sure, some people might not enjoy it and that’s ok, be mindful and thankful of the time they took to check you out, reach out to you and give you feedback. That’s a lot more than what most people will do. 

Take a brief or not so brief look at the possible path that the criticism would point you towards, even if that was not your intention to begin with. There’s always something to be gained.

Eventually you will be criticised for something that you will recognize resembles more of a limitation. That’s ok, no one is a master in every single conceivable musical aspect. Humbly accept the fact that you did your best with the resources you had available. If this is a big area in your artistic path try to tackle it and solve it as fast as you can. In researching and spending many hours just focusing on that same issue and on the many ingenious solutions that the grand masters have used to solve that problem, you will eventually become knowledgeable and well versed in that particular detail. Then you can make your  artistic choices, then you can work on implementing them. Rinse and repeat.

To grow in music or any kind of art form requires ultimately a deep connection and conversation with your inner self. A brutal self awareness and recognition of where you are along your path, what lies ahead, what lies behind. It’s only natural to produce something, whatever it is, and have our egos intervene and hold on to what was produced in a very emotional way. I won’t say there is anything inherently wrong with you if you feel this way, it is after all just human nature. What I will say is, the more you can distance yourself from these feelings the more you will gain from every experience.