When I decided to become a composer back in 1991, practically no one took me seriously. Had my parents not supported my decision, I might not be right now on a plane, on my way to my next performance.
I grew up in a city of eight million people, one symphony orchestra and one conservatory. I don’t think most people in my country know exactly what I do for a living, and if they do, they might not even consider it a profession. That was my experience back in high school. Many tried to persuade me that music was a hobby, not a real career. The greatest disappointment came when one of the teachers in my school actually tried to convince my parents that it was imperative to change my mind. In his opinion, I was just a teenager who didn’t know what he really wanted so my parents, as adults, had to act responsibly and dissuade me from wasting my intelligence in such a fruitless endeavor. Fortunately for me, my parents did not pay heed to his unwise words.
At the beginning, when I performed my own compositions in public events at my high school, the other kids would mock me, but with time they just started to accept that I was simply a little different and I was not ashamed of it. The creation of a second orchestra in 1994, the Lima Philharmonic, came as a blessing for me. An exceptionally fortunate chain of events led the orchestra’s founder, Miguel Harth-Bedoya, to choose my school’s auditorium as a venue for his orchestra’s rehearsals. In time, the orchestra musicians started teaching us all orchestral instruments, our school invested heavily in the music department and I became assistant librarian to the Lima Philharmonic.
If people’s skepticism had been first directed toward my choice of profession, it later started to be aimed at my talent. My first compositions were not met with an enthusiastic reception. I showed them to several people, including a piano teacher who once pointed, “the fact that you are very self-confident doesn’t mean that your music or your playing is good”. Not everybody was critical, of course, my piano teacher from childhood had an unwavering conviction that I would get far, and so did my parents. At that age and at such a crucial stage in life the support of your loved ones can make the world of a difference.
I wouldn’t be sharing this if I didn’t know that lots of kids are going through the same situation right now. Ignorance and lack of education are responsible for most misconceptions people have about this profession. Only many years later I learned that my parents had held a long struggle not only with their own doubts, but with other people’s skepticism as well. The parents of other kids at school would tell them that being a musician was synonymous of being lazy and bohemian. Obviously none of those people ever studied music because otherwise they would understand the degree of discipline required to master an instrument or to write a work for symphony orchestra. One of my teachers once asked me what were my plans after high school, and I said I would go study at the Conservatory. “How long is the career?”, he asked, “Well, one has to start early, but I expect to graduate in five years”, I told him. “Five years? Can you study music for that long?”. I knew he was asking in good spirits because he truly didn’t know, so I went on to explain that one has to study several courses including analysis, history, solfège, instrumentation, orchestration, counterpoint, harmony, performance, composition, etc. He seemed truly baffled that one could study music for so long. I think he would be even more surprised now, because even though our conversation took place 16 years ago, I still have one year left before I finish my PhD.
If you are young and you want to become a musician, you are very lucky if you were born to a musical family or in a country where music is truly appreciated. For the rest of us, whose parents are not musicians and whose environment feels rather hostile toward this profession, I recommend lots of determination. Be confident about your capacity, no matter what other people say. You need a great deal of confidence if you want to step on stage, in front of hundreds of people, and give a two-hour recital. You need to be confident if you want to tell an orchestra of 80+ musicians that you know what you are doing and they need to follow you. You need confidence to attend the premiere of a work you spent months working on, be destroyed by a critic in next morning’s newspaper and continue to work in spite of this. Music is not for the faint hearted; you have to be fully invested in it and you need to be ready to display, in public, the deepest corners of your soul and mind. It is psychologically demanding but is also incredibly rewarding. Some of the most significant moments of my life are contained in my music, and some of the greatest memories I have, have to do with music. And if a person you love is there to witness those moments with you, you can consider yourself very, very fortunate.
How do you gain this confidence? By being good at what you do, and this often means working really hard. You can’t build a career based solely on your talent. Self-confident people who have no other virtue but being confident are empty, and this emptiness will be quickly perceived by everyone around them. Don’t rush; go out to the world and show what you have, but only when you are ripe. There has been an obsession in recent years for even younger conductors and composers, but these professions are not like sports, they need more time to mature. However, don’t wait for too long, you might burn the cake. You will know when you are ready, and as soon as this happens, make sure to share your talent. You were given this talent for you to share with others, not to keep it to yourself. Be ready to be praised and criticized, and remember that your confidence does not depend on other people’s perception of you, but on yourself. If you let yourself be seduced by praise, you will end up seeking praise and therefore trivialize your art. If you let yourself be affected by criticism, you might get depressed often, and this will in turn lead to poor health and less productivity. Do not be deaf to criticism; otherwise you will succumb to your own pride, but do not let it destroy you. Remember that what other people say is just their opinion, not the absolute truth. It is especially important to remember this at the beginning of your career, when very few people believe in you, but you must also remember this throughout your entire life.
As my plane nears its destination (Lima, my home city) I recall all those years of struggle with a sense of satisfaction. I didn’t give up, and because I didn’t give up I am going to witness my third performance with the National Symphony. I am nowhere near completing my mission as a composer, but I know that my once dream of becoming a composer is now a reality. I encourage every young aspiring musician to follow his/her heart, and I encourage every parent out there to listen to their children. Listen to what they have to say, because sometimes your kids know exactly what they want, and if they are determined, nothing is going to stop them.