An Overachiever's Honest Resume: How I Almost Quit Conducting

Outward success isn't always what it seems. Feeling left behind while others thrive? Chances are, they're feeling the same way.

A few weeks ago I saw a post^ that made me stop in my tracks:

from @wholeheartedmusician on Instagram

I try really hard to present a balanced version of myself on social media, but we all curate, pick and choose what others' see. As a chronic people-pleaser I don't want to upset others or appear to be complaining, whingeing or ungrateful. When things are tough I share and lean on those close to me, but I don't feel it appropriate to put that out to a mass audience.

Recently I've had a few successes arrive all at once, yet reading Adam Grant's post made me think about the importance of sharing the whole story. Not in a bid for attention, consolation or commiseration (I'm fine, thanks for asking)...but rather as a demonstration of shared humanity.

There is no easy road to success for anyone. Many of us enjoy a raft of visible and invisible privileges and luck that help us on our way. However we also share hardship, rejection, frustration and setbacks on our path toward becoming better.

My recent and past successes look a little different with some added perspective.

"Making her MSO debut"

In January this year, two weeks before I was offered my first professional conducting engagement, I was seriously considering giving up conducting.

I had been crying most days for weeks, and was feeling helpless, useless and fed up with the black box of getting work with professional ensembles. Though COVID restrictions were slowly abating I was losing hope about ever being able to work with a professional group.

2021 had seemed like the best opportunity for an Australian conductor to finally get work with a local organisation, with border closures drying up the steady stream of international conductors that fill our podiums and concert halls.

Since well before COVID I had done my best to get more information on how these mysterious decisions were made about who conducts professional orchestras. Over time had I learned that there is plenty of misattributed industry short-hand that plays a role in these decisions.

Many achievements are seen as signals of readiness or competence that actually have little to do with the ability to do the job in question.

Study or masterclasses in certain countries with certain people must mean you're ready to work with professionals. Others - you couldn't possibly do the job. Oh sorry, you studied in America but not at Juilliard. That doesn't count.

In one conversation when I said I'd been making a living conducting for 15 years I was actually asked "Oh, but what conducting is there aside from professional orchestras? That's the only place you can conduct"

When I replied I'd been conducting in schools and the community I was met with a perplexed look. "That's not conducting, is it?"

Unfortunately, being a woman didn't help either. "Oh, it might get better...in 5 years" I was told.

Despite these demoralising revelations I'd also gathered a lot of relevant and useful information. I'd spent my months in lockdown gathering support and recommendations from respected colleagues, creating editing and sending resumes and show reels, meeting with decision-makers and getting more information on how decisions were made.

Yet for all my work I got absolutely nowhere. I was pretty done. I felt like I'd done my best and clearly I wasn't good enough to do what I wanted to do. I had begun to accept that maybe my dream just wasn't real.

I was thinking about what I would do that wasn't music. I wasn't going to go back to medicine. In my head I'd started considering how our family finances would work if I went back to study and start a new career. As a kid I'd always wanted to be an architect...

In the depths of my despair and frustration in January my wife asked me "What do you really want?"

I walked over to the bookshelf and pulled out this:

"I want to do this!" I exclaimed through the tears.

Less than two weeks later I'd been offered to conduct a children's concert with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.

That offer didn't come from nowhere, mind you. (Though it did feel like that at first!) It came from doing good work, being reliable and building relationships during the previous year in things that weren't conducting where I could make a contribution and add value. As well as years of work with other people in the organisation who could vouch for my work.

The failures on the road to success

My whole journey has been filled by milestones like this, where just when I'm ready to give up (or past giving up) the next step or door appears.

From 2002-2010 I applied for the now defunct Symphony Services conducting program, which gave young conductors the chance to do weeklong masterclasses with professional orchestras in Australia and New Zealand. I was rejected every time. In 2010, when I asked to swap my audition time I was told in an email:

"I would like to suggest to you that you consider not auditioning this year.  I’ve looked back through your records and you have auditioned for the program each year since 2005 – so this would be your sixth year of auditioning.  To date you have not been successful in gaining a place in the program.  As you know, the Core Conductors program is really aimed at conductors that are likely to make a career as a professional conductor, and we always recommend that applicants consider their track record in auditions as an indication of whether they are likely to succeed in the future.

Since we have already offered you an audition I am willing to honour that offer if you feel very strongly that you would be likely to be accepted. I suggest you look back over the past year and consider whether you have had significant growth in your conducting experience and skills.  If not, it might be better to not audition.  Of course, we would be delighted to accept your application as an Auditor if you would be interested in participating in the program in this manner."

I arrived to my audition with Ben Zander's story of "Beyond the F*** It" resonating through my heart and head. Two days before I'd just given the most exhilarating, transformative performance of my life. I conducted with great abandon...and finally passed the audition.

But that's not where the story ends. All those years I'd auditioned and failed I'd been pretty angry. I thought I was awesome and that they were missing out and had no idea what they were looking for.

When I finally got to my first masterclass I suddenly realised why I hadn't gotten in. I had had very good technical capability, but not a well developed musical voice or opinion. In front of a professional orchestra who can play everything on the page very well I didn't have much to add, aside from looking good and not doing anything to trip them up. My years of working with students had helped me develop great problem-solving and teaching skills to get the things on the page to actually happen, but not much beyond that. If I had gotten into the program any earlier I would have floundered, and it probably would have done me more harm than good.

If you hear no, don't get upset. It means yes, but just not yet.*

Just this year, I've had many generous and thoughtful people say "Oh - you're doing so much with Conducting Artistry. You're running so many events and being so successful!"

What they don't see is the many events that have been quietly cancelled or postponed because no one registered. The events I've run with just 2 people. The grand total of 4 sales of my online course in 18 months that doesn't even begin to cover the thousands of dollars invested in production, equipment, editing and hosting.

Then there's the Music Director positions I've been turned down for, but offered the opportunity to be an assistant to someone less qualified and experienced than me so I could "learn from them."

Not to mention the many competitions and masterclasses I've paid through the nose to be considered for without any success. The Rosemary and John Hopkins Award that I recently won was the first time I've ever received an email from a competition or masterclass that didn't include the words "We regret to inform you".

Yet I know that all these hard experiences are preparing me for what's next.

I wouldn't have gotten where I am without making and producing and planning all those events and courses, even if people didn't want them.

I wouldn't have known what I stand for without applying for positions and creating sample programs that were rejected.

I wouldn't have won the award if I hadn't applied - if I'd taken all that rejection as a sign that I wasn't worthy at all, rather than I wasn't ready yet.

I've also learned (okay, still learning) that it's not personal.

Being told $59 for a 3-hour PD is too expensive doesn't mean my contribution and weeks of hard work isn't worth $59. It just means that person can't pay that amount for this thing right now.

The rejection isn't saying I'm a bad person/conductor/teacher/leader. It might be a signal that I'm not ready, or it's not the right thing for people right now, or it's not the right fit with a particular organisation or ensemble.

What's the lesson in all of this?

If you're struggling, I feel you. Whatever your path there's going to be lots of hard going, and it really sucks. Only you can make the decision of whether you keep going, pause, or change direction completely.

You also can't rush what's beyond your control. So often when we're at the end of our tether, something great might be around the corner if we can only be patient and keep taking care of ourselves.

Each dip that we persevere through makes us bolder, stronger and more prepared for the next challenge that awaits us.

If you're jealous of others' successes, oh boy I feel you! Just know that behind the glitz and glamour everyone is having their own struggles. Illnesses, relationship breakdowns, addiction, financial stress, loss, grief.

We'll likely never know what they are.  They might appear more or less than ours - but comparison isn't useful. What is useful is recognising our shared humanity as we navigate the uncertainties of life and purpose. You know the challenge and stories that sit behind your own successes, behind the shiny social media facade. Having the empathy to recognise that others share this experience will only make us better colleagues, leaders, collaborators and humans.

And if you're a leader of other humans, like we all are when we stand in front of ensembles, remember that we're all doing the best we can with what we've got.

Our best thinking got us here. New thinking will get us to the next place.

---

^I've just bought Adam Grant's incredible book Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don't Know after he blew my mind in this interview with Brené Brown.

*This line comes from Kelli O'Hara's "They Don't Let You In The Opera" - a 7-minute joyous musical retelling of her story of obstacles, defeat and forging your own path. Every time I'm in a hole I watch this. It's the best thing on the internet. Seriously.

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