Money, mediocrity, and the myth of 'making it' (part 3)

Tom Chevis 10 Feb 21
In part 1, we looked at what was good in a church minister telling a bunch of music college CU students that most of them would not ‘make it’. In part 2, we sought a better way, by rejecting the myth of ‘making it’ in the worldly sense, instead redefining ‘making it’ to mean ‘having a career in music, however high-profile or low-profile, in which we are content.’
Here in part 3, we’ll begin expounding this understanding of ‘making it’ by thinking about mediocrity.

Reclaiming mediocrity

I think we need to reclaim the goodness of mediocrity. WHAT? Yes, I said it. We need to reclaim the goodness, or at the very least the acceptability, of mediocrity.

Mediocrity, in the arts, is not merely a dirty word; it’s a filthy one. It speaks of those who have not sought to master their craft, or those who have pushed no boundaries; it speaks of those who may have ‘sold out’ to the ‘uneducated masses’, or those who have settled for uninspiring or supposedly unimportant roles instead of pursuing the career summit. And whilst some of those critiques may be true and may in fact be undergirded by less-than-adequate motives (more on that below), it needs to be pointed out that the word mediocrity literally means ‘of middling height’.

And as I’ve already highlighted with my analogy from the world of banking in part 2, the vast majority of people in all professions, including music, only ever reach ‘a middling height’ in terms of the career ladder. And that can’t be wrong or bad. Otherwise you condemn the vast majority of all people everywhere for a simple fact of life – that there can only be a very few at the very top!

Rather, if goodness is defined less by what you achieve and more by how and for what purposes you achieve whatever you do (as the biblical understanding of ‘goodness’ would imply – see part 2 for more on this), then we can confidently and unashamedly reclaim the potential goodness of mediocrity. We’ll think more about this in part 4.

One necessary qualification here: I’m not talking about the quality of the music-making itself being compromised. I’m not saying that we should be content to settle for a subpar musical performance because we’ve been lazy and done too little practice, or because we’ve not cared about the gig itself and so dishonoured those paying us by not trying our hardest. Again, see part 4 for more on this. No, what I am saying, and which I feel it is necessary to be crystal clear about, is that mediocrity is not to be despised when it comes to the things over which we have very little to no control, such as the height that we reach on the musical ‘career ladder’.

Not in control

The fact is, as I’ve already said, that most people don’t reach the heights that they would wish. Why? Yes, sometimes it’s because they just aren’t as talented. But sometimes it’s simply due to not knowing the right people, or being in the right crowd, or someone else on the day playing better in that audition, or a jury member being a bit biased towards someone else for some reason known only to them, or it could be because whilst you played brilliantly, you just didn’t quite fit the bill as well as someone else who played equally well. The point is, when it comes to our careers as musicians, we are almost entirely dependent on the affirmation and, more to the point, professional employment offered to us by others higher up the ladder. And so we are not in control. And therefore the vast majority of us will spend the majority of our working lives doing jobs that are not at the heights we imagined.

For some that’ll mean gigging with various chamber orchestras and ensembles freelance, when the dream was a full-size professional salaried orchestra. For some that’ll mean a solid salaried full-time job - e.g. as a music journalist, or a secondary school music teacher - when the dream was the freedom of performing freelance, in whatever sort of ensemble might have you. For others it’ll mean doing some peripatetic teaching perhaps alongside other non-music-related job(s) when the dream was a solid salaried full-time job in anything as long as it was in the music industry.

In this sense, the majority of us (I include myself in terms of my own composition ‘career’) end up being distinctly ‘mediocre’. And that’s okay! I have never been in control of my career. Yes of course there are things that one can do that ameliorate one’s chances of moving up the ladder – in my case, actually having a website and maybe a semi-decent social media presence might help – but even so, in the end, we still have to rely on that agent or that record company or that audition panel contacting us to say that they wish to offer us the job, and not somebody else.

And so mediocrity in this sense is not to be despised. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it can, and (when we are inhabiting it) should, be embraced and made the most of. And we’ll explore why and how that is in part 4.

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