Michael Houstoun
Michael Houstoun - Archive

Speech delivered at the national final of the Chamber Music New Zealand Secondary Schools Chamber Music Competition held in Christchurch on 27 July, 2007.

Good evening, everyone.

I think that the main reason that I have been asked to give this short speech tonight is not so much that I have been a contestant in this competition myself, but rather that I am still here! Some of you might even feel that I have been around forever. I am probably older than most of the parents of tonight’s contestants, and so I thought I might make this fact the basis for this address – that is, I will talk a little about professional longevity.

What is it that allows some musicians to develop ongoing careers while others fall by the wayside? To some degree the answer lies in the dimensions of their natural gifts, but that is not the whole story. Many a very fine talent has dead-ended at an early age.

I would like to suggest two ingredients without which there will be enormous difficulty developing a musical career. The first is a sense of obligation, not so much to your audience as to your talent itself. No talent comes fully-formed and complete, it is simply the beginning. Even the most spectacular early talent has to be developed. A young talent will get all sorts of encouragement and guidance and it is a boon if there are supportive parents and an excellent teacher. But they can’t do it for you. Only a deep sense of responsibility towards your own talents and gifts will give you the necessary will and devotion to develop them to the maximum. Perhaps this sense of obligation is itself innate, part of the talent, but there is no harm in thinking about it and consciously protecting yourself from those things that might undermine it - egomania being the greatest danger.

The second ingredient can best be presented in a cliché well known to musicians: you are only as good as your last performance. I hold that this is true both internally and externally. If you have just played badly no memory of former triumphs can override your disappointment. It is the same feeling as mucking up the last bar of a piece, only on a larger scale. It can give your confidence a nasty knock.

I wonder if there are any performers tonight who are tempted to say “we played it better at school last week”. It may even be true that you did, but the person in the audience who heard both performances is just as able to decide that the quote better unquote performance was a fluke and that tonight’s performance was more truly representative. From the point of view of a career the fact of a bad performance is damaging not so much in itself but in what people will say about it. This is especially true if your performing arena is small. If you are playing all over the world it could take quite a while for your bad performances to catch up with you. But in a little-populated country like NZ three bad performances in a row and everyone knows! Consistency becomes important, but even more important is continuous development. To use another cliché, there can be no resting on your laurels – even when you have been around as long as I have!

We are now back to the first ingredient, the sense of obligation to your talent, which becomes the sense of obligation to your audience the more you play in public.

A competition such as we are enjoying this evening comes at an important time in a young musician’s life. You the contestants, while young enough to be having a lot of fun, are also old enough to begin to seriously consider a life in music as a real prospect and this event may well give you the boost you need to make your commitment. My wish for you is that you find within yourselves the wherewithal to persist and grow as musicians. It would be hard to find a life as happy, fulfilling and worthy as a musician’s life.

CMNZ-SSCM Competition speech 27/7/07


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