Sphinx Competition: Building a Life and Career in Music

February 5, 2011, 2:00 PM ·

What is the single most important factor in your success?

This was the kind of question posed on Friday to successful music professionals representing many facets of the industry at a panel discussion called "Musical Toolbox," meant to show Sphinx Competition participants what tools they need to be cultivating for a life and career in music.

And it went way beyond "Practice six hours a day."


Belen and Dworkin

2008 Sphinx Laureate Danielle Belen and Sphinx Founder and President Aaron Dworkin


The panelists certainly were the right people to ask: 2008 Sphinx Laureate Danielle Belen; EPCOR Centre for the Performing Arts CEO Johann Zietsman; conductor Kazem Abdullah; composer Roberto Sierra; violinist Sanford Allen, the first Black member of the New York Philharmonic; and violinist Pam Frank, Avery Fischer prize winner, performer and professor of violin at Curtis Institute and Peabody Conservatory.

How does a person achieve success as a musician? When a performing arts directory such as Musical America contains 50 performing artists' series on a single page, how does one stand out? How does one find a niche in this field?

"I think it's important to evaluate your relationship to music," said Pam Frank. "Find your individual voice and be true to it. Do not be influenced by what others tell you to do; do not be entranced by fame."

"I think success is also in the eye of the beholder," added Karem Abdullah. "The motivation can't be just financial, it has to be that you love music and you want to share your enthusiasm for it." You also can't take any opportunities for granted, he said. "You have to make the most of every opportunity."

"I love doing what I do; if I don't write for several days, I get nervous," said Roberto Sierra. His motivation to write doesn't disappear just because there is no project on the table, no commission to fill right now. It is a constant urge to compose.

Johann Zietsman, who grew up in South Africa, said his sense of how to make a career was deeply influenced by "being in the wrong place at the wrong time," a white person in apartheid, wanting to present black artists and serve black audience, despite the fact that it was actually illegal. "That still drives who I am, that sense of wanting to make the world a better place," he said. "It's that simple, and it's that difficult."

As musicians, trying to sell out a hall or sell a certain number of recordings, we become programmed to the idea that success is equal to more people liking you. But true success has to be on a deeper level; it comes of cultivating an inner artistic compass and sense of integrity that guides your decisions.

"The moment you respond to a creative impulse, what you create internally is of greater importance than what you create externally," Zietsman said.

Conductor Karem Abdullah said that learning to say "no" to certain projects was also part of cultivating artistic integrity. "I need to feel a connection to a composer's music to do it," he said. Sometimes he is asked to do projects that are ethnically based, and if they don't truly speak to him, he says no.

Being true to one's artistic impulse certainly is not always the easy path, even if it is the right one.

"I needed to play the fiddle, it was really that simple," said Sanford Allen, of his drive to play the violin despite the difficulty of being the first black musician in the New York Philharmonic. "I was tempted not to do it at times. I wanted to cut my head off sometimes! But that seemed a trifle drastic."

Danielle Belen said that while other violinists in music school might have been looking over each other's shoulders, seeing who was winning this competition and that, "I was looking at Mr. Lipsett," her teacher. His ability to transform students and complete involvement in their development inspired her to want to do the same. So, despite the fact that she actually won the Sphinx Competition in 2008 and loves performing, she still considers her calling to be teaching. Even if she were to win $1 million in a lottery, "I honestly could say, I would still want to teach, I enjoy it so much."

Certainly, there will be difficulties, even if one is sure about one's career decisions. Pamela Frank spoke of an accident that wiped away her ability to play, in one moment. "In that moment, you realize, you aren't what you do, you are what you are," she said. The accident forced her to transform herself, though not without a period of depression and difficulty. "I threw myself into music in a different way," becoming a teacher and channelling that desire to play through her students. "I think 'soloist' is not a career. You are either a musician, or you are not. What is success? It's gratitude, to be so grateful you have anything to do with music."

This is all wonderful philosophy, but let's get real. You have to practice! How much does a successful artist practice his or her craft?

"I'm a big believer in quality of work," Abdullah said. "There has to be a real purpose in what you are doing. If you are practicing a few minutes at a time, then texting.."

"You guys shouldn't even have your phone near you when you practice!" interjected Sphinx founder and president Aaron Dworkin.

"Don't spend one extra minute practicing something you already do well," Frank said. "It's important to practice honestly. If you feel yourself starting to fade, stop."

That said, a lot of practice is needed, especially in the beginning. Malcolm Gladwell's prescription of 10,000 hours' practice to reach a level of expertise does have merit.

As a student, "I really did need to practice about four hours a day to do all the exercises and learn new pieces," Belen said. Since then, she has become more efficient Still, "you need to be constantly teaching yourself," she said.

Dworkin took an informal poll of Sphinx participants and asked what careers interest them. Hands were raised for many different things: being a soloist, a teacher, chamber music performer, composer, conductor and arts administrator. Almost all of them said they don't want to do just one thing.

Sanford Allen advised getting "a really solid education; not just in your discipline, but in everything around it." That includes reading, writing, history.. (I'll personally throw in math.) Allen talked about teaching a music history class, which turned into a remedial writing class because the students had such poor written communication skills.

It's also important to meet people, build connections, and use them in a positive way, said Zietsman.

One Sphinx participant asked how we can build diverse audiences for classical music.

"I've realized that if you are a bunch of green people and you want to do something for red people, you'd better have some red people in the room when you are making plans," said Zietsman. It's surprising, he said, how many presenters will make such decisions without seeking out the help and advice of the audience they are trying to attract.

In building a career, it's also important to remember the Nike slogan, "Just do it." Belen spoke of building a studio, simply because she wanted to start teaching. Eventually, her experience and enthusiasm eventually helped lead to a teaching position at the Colburn School in Los Angeles.

"You just do it, whether someone has made the opportunity for you or not," Dworkin said, summing it up. "If not, you make the opportunity yourself."

* * *

A crescent moon hung over the Detroit River Friday at sunset, with Windsor, Ontario on one side of the river and Detroit on the other. Sphinx contestants, Sphinx Symphony Orchestra members and donors rode the glass elevators to the top of Detroit's Renaissance Center for a special dinner at the restaurant, Coach Insignia. The elevator climbed past every skyscraper in the city, allowing us the fullest scope of this beautiful scene. As we continued upward, I felt the sense that our little glass vessel would burst through the ceiling at any time and launch into the sky, as in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I hope those participating in the Sphinx get the same feeling -- about pursuing a career in classical music.


Sunset in Detroit


February 6, 2011 at 06:49 AM ·

Nice article. The last time I was at that nice hotel my copilot and I took four tries to land with the St. Louis Blues on board. Winds were gust to over 70mph. When we got to the hotel, now about midnight, we went up to our rooms near the top on that outside elevator. That elevator was swaying back and forth from the high winds. However, my room was really swaying. I felt like a drunk walking across the room. The news the next morning said some gusts reached 80mph. Glad you didn't have those conditions.

February 6, 2011 at 09:24 PM ·

Good insights!  And that photo is gorgeous!!!

February 7, 2011 at 04:39 AM ·

At "From the Top" broadcast tonight, there was a 25 year old violinist who had been on FTT as a 15 year old and is now a member of the Harlem SQ, made up of the winners of the Sphinx competition many years (8) ago.  She said that when she did graduate work, her teacher worked on her finding her voice.   If you hadn't been writing about the competition, I wouldn't have gotten so much out of FTT tonight.  Thanks for bringing these competitions to our consciousness.

This article has been archived and is no longer accepting comments.

Facebook YouTube Instagram Email

Violinist.com is made possible by...

Shar Music
Shar Music

Pirastro Strings
Pirastro Strings

JR Judd Violins
JR Judd Violins

Los Angeles Philharmonic
Los Angeles Philharmonic

Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra
Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra

Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases
Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases

Anne Cole Violin Maker
Anne Cole Violin Maker

Violinist.com Shopping Guide
Violinist.com Shopping Guide

Metzler Violin Shop

Southwest Strings

Bobelock Cases

Johnson String Instrument/Carriage House Violins

Jargar Strings

Bay Fine Strings Violin Shop



Los Angeles Violin Shop


String Masters

Nazareth Gevorkian Violins

Laurie's Books

Discover the best of Violinist.com in these collections of editor Laurie Niles' exclusive interviews.

Violinist.com Interviews Volume 1
Violinist.com Interviews Volume 1, with introduction by Hilary Hahn

Violinist.com Interviews Volume 2
Violinist.com Interviews Volume 2, with introduction by Rachel Barton Pine