Flutist Dawn Weiss, teacher, event performer
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Reflections on Being a Performer
by Dawn Weiss,
November 13, 2000

Today, I was contacted by the GPFS (Greater Portland Flute Society) to write an article or series of articles on the stages of becoming a professional musician. This topic particularly is on my mind after having just seen the movie "Billy Elliot" I was so highly impacted by viewing this characterization, that I felt an urgency to begin by talking about how this movie startled my memory banks. For me, it was a cathartic unloading: a realization and acceptance of the degree of pain and humiliation associated with becoming a performer. Yes, there is also excitement, and wonder. There are rich rewards. There is the addictive adrenaline rush. There are the family dynamics, unique to each professional. But, we all got to this place via a gnarly set of misadventures, thrills and personal sacrifices that are sometimes too overwhelming to describe.

When Bob Frymire called me to request this set of articles, he probably assumed, the way most students believe, that there is some straight, linear way to proceed from amateur to professional: That if one followed a direct outline, or course of study, that one could systematically go, step by step, through the prescribed obstacle course, ending up a "professional". I do believe that to be a "professional" one needs to have mastered various levels of proficiency. I also believe one needs to come to terms with all sorts of challenges, familial, collegial, and critics from the audience. However, I do not see the growth as being linear. Each phase of development is fraught with overtones of personal self recriminations, self image adjustment, family pressures and expectations (sometimes for and sometimes against becoming a musician), and hard choices of how one spends ones time, both, inside and outside the practice room. A well rounded professional will have achieved a high level of exposure to life, love, and all the arts as well as having mastered one's own instrument. That is not to say that all professionals are equally adept at every aspect of their field.

First, let us look at the assumptions about what it is to be a professional. In music, professionalism is usually the state of being accepted and respected by others as having attained a high enough achievement level that one gets paid for doing what others do for free. But, all of art is subjective. When does a person become a professional? How good is good enough in tone, technique, interpretation, sight reading, etc? If someone achieves this level of expertise, does it mean he/she automatically is recognized as having done so? Does one automatically get paid when one "arrives"? Clearly, the truth is that some people are paid for work that is less remarkable than others who are not paid. Therefore, to become a "great" musician may be an equally desirable, but different goal.

What I came to know, after being paid for several years in a "professional" position, and after teaching quite a large number of years, is that one never achieves perfection. One is always growing and therefore, one has trouble differentiating the difference between being a student and a professional. In fact, for years after acquiring a job, I continued studying regularly with various flute teachers, other musicians and performing artists, and personal development specialists to improve my skills and my relationship with my self. In truth, the attainment of artistic excellence is a never ending pursuit. Therefore, there is a difference between being paid for one's work and having attained the highest level of excellence in each area of musicianship.

By this article, I hope to establish that growth is personal and unique to each individual. Each person attains strength in different areas at different rates. Each person must work with themselves to fill in the gaps. Ultimately, one must be willing to go through this incredible process for the sake of attaining expertise. The payment part may or may not come, regardless of the level achieved.

Back to the movie "Billy Elliot". What struck me was the drive, the need to dance. It wasn't even a choice for him, it was a systemic need. All the abuse from unsympathetic family and peer pressure, all the financial pressure, all the critical demands of the teacher, all the obstacles to overcome, both physical and mental could not stop the compelling drive. The movie could have ended anywhere for me after Billy took his audition. The results of the audition could have been anything. Surely, all professionals have experienced some devastating losses. So the movie could have shown him coming back from a loss and, yet, finding a way to continue pushing forward. But, movies aren't long enough to show each competition, each goal and each victory or set back in the course of one person's career. What was clear was the amazing effort, the hopes, the dreams, the fears, the unpredictable outcome, the making and breaking of confidence. The art of performance is that intense, emotional and unpredictable. All one can do is follow their heart, find a great teacher who is their advocate, and take one step after another. The rest may be fate.

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