10 July 2013

I learned a lot in music school, but it often seems that my real education began as soon as I graduated and started working. Perhaps things are different nowadays, but back when I was an undergrad, conservatories were preparing students for careers they were unlikely ever to have. Instrumentalists were studying to be soloists, singers were training to be opera stars, and so on. And here we all are now - those of us who didn’t die or give up music altogether - playing in pit orchestras, singing backup, teaching, copying, proofreading, etc. And we’re grateful!

One of the useful skills I did not learn in college was how to collaborate. And what an important skill that is. If you write a piece and are lucky enough to get someone to rehearse and perform it, you will be collaborating with them. If you garner a commission, you’ll be collaborating with your patron as well as the performers. If you write vocal music or a theater piece, you’ll either collaborate with another creative person, or limit yourself to setting texts by dead poets whose work is out of copyright. And if your theater piece gets produced, you’ll be collaborating with producers, directors, choreographers, designers, actors, dancers, and musicians.

I’m slowly learning that talent and ability only account for maybe 25% of a successful professional career. The other 75% is your political and diplomatic skills. The ratio may even be more like 80/20 or 90/10. A prominent contractor for Broadway shows told me that if he had the choice of hiring a great player with an attitude or a slightly-less-great player who was pleasant and cooperative, he’d hire the supposedly lesser player every time.

The key to collaboration is compromise. Compromise means no one gets everything he or she wants. Compromise sometimes means sacrificing your ideals. But if you want your work to be seen and heard, it’s very necessary to team up with people who can do things you cannot do, and it’s best if they feel they are working with you, not working for you.

I’ve worked on a bunch of musical theater projects, and the word “team” gets used a lot. Like any team, there are people with different skills and areas of expertise, and, ideally, they are pulling in the same direction towards a common goal. A team that has trust, communication and esprit de corps is much more likely to reach their goal than a team where there’s tension, and the members are in competition with each other. At any time, someone on the team will be carrying the ball, so to speak, and it’s up to the other team members to stay out of the way, as well as clear a path. Every now and then, the ball will be thrown to you, and then it’s up to you to run with it, shoot, and score.

Have you ever played on a team where one player considers himself to be “the star”? I have, and it’s not fun or rewarding. If you can possibly help it, don’t be that player.