I am sometimes asked about success in the arts, not only by students, but also by their parents, or by interested outsiders. What does one have to do to become successful as an artist? Why are some artists successful while others remain unknown? Are there different rules for success for some artists, and different rules for others? I would call these questions part of the general interest we all have in moving ahead, in taking our art to the next level. Are there secrets known only by the great? Today I am going to tell you a secret – a real secret, and I hope you find it as interesting as I did discovering it. In telling this, I am also going to introduce four important concepts on success which you may find surprising.
This story is true, but I cannot name the artist – let me merely say he is a famous pianist who played at Loyola some time ago, and leave it at that!
I knew this artist’s work very well through many recordings, watching him in concert while I worked in Vienna and Salzburg, and also from accounts from others who knew him well. However, I was not prepared for his humility, sweet disposition, and willingness to do whatever was necessary to further Loyola’s aims until I met him personally. That first meeting was at Louis Armstrong Airport, where I picked him up from his flight from New York. He was not flying in a corporate jet, although I am sure he could have easily afforded such a trip. He was flying on the most budget oriented airlines of budget airlines (I shall not be more specific!). I met him at the gate. He was wearing jeans, a suit jacket, and a polo shirt. He was carrying a vinyl gym bag, and a novel, which I determined later to be a thriller by David Baldacci. When we arrived at the tollbooth to pay for the airport parking garage he asked if he shouldn’t pay the parking fee for Loyola, since he was playing for us as part of a fundraiser.
I tried very hard not to burst into laughter. In my years as a Dean I have known many visiting artists, and this was the first one that every asked to pay the airport parking fee for Loyola. Naturally, I refused! As I drove him to the hotel he began asking me questions about my work at Loyola, what I was playing, what my school was like, and then he began to ask questions about New Orleans, and, more specifically, how we were recovering from Hurricane Katrina.
The key word in this description of him is ‘ask’ — he was curious, kind, and interested in others. Instead of a great man with little time for ordinary things, one was confronted with a great man who was very interested in ordinary things, and in ordinary people. He was, as I saw more and more during his visit, simply a wonderful person who just happened to be one of the greatest pianists in the world. But his approach to his concert was what fascinated me the most.
He asked that he might have the day to practice, and we set the artist up on the stage, and he proceeded to go over his program. I sat far in the back of the hall, curious to hear his approach to concert preparation. His scheduled program was massive, and the works to be performed were highly complex and of considerable difficulty. He did not, however, play through any of the pieces he was scheduled to perform that evening, but instead worked on many others! And, since he had brought no music with him at all, all of this was done purely by memory. The only time he stopped practicing was to check in on his wife and family in New York, or rest for a few moments to gather his strength. He also did not practice entire pieces, but merely short sections which obviously were especially difficult and which he wished to improve.
His performance that evening was impeccable, and he received multiple standing ovations – but few in the audience knew that the man before them was not only a great artist, but also a wonderful human being with seemingly superhuman abilities. In the end he left us with a remarkable memory, but also raised money through his appearance for Loyola’s scholarship funds, and also for local charities, taking absolutely nothing for himself.
So, as promised, I will provide to you the four virtues or four pillars of success, all of which this artist practiced, and all of which can be found in the work of the successful artists I have known. These are: self-awareness, ingenuity, courage, and love. My list of virtues is not random, but taken from the wonderful writings of Chris Lowney, whose book Heroic Leadership: Best Practices from a 450-year-old Company that Changed the World, contain the same four pillars of success.
But more in our next BLOG!