This is an important question to ask yourself. In a perfect world in which your every dream was realized, and you were successful at everything you attempted, what would that look like for you? Would you be a soloist with major orchestras and perform around the world? Would you be a top singer at the Met or a famous jazz artist with your own group? Would you like to be a celebrity—someone like Kim Kardashian, whose job is just being Kim Kardashian? Does success to you mean being “famous” or “rich,” or are you more altruistic? Maybe you want to“make a difference,” and perhaps teach music to under-privileged children or set up a music school in your community. Is music even a consideration when you think of being successful in life? It could be that success to you is finding a partner, a soul-mate with whom you can spend your life. That could be your definition of ultimate success.
“Being successful” is probably different for all of us. If you equate success with “being famous,”and you are 45 years old, and don’t have management or any prospects of that, have never won a competition on your instrument and have only been a soloist with community orchestras, are you a failure? If success to you means “being famous,” then the answer is probably yes. But what about the little wins along the way? I would argue that if you set yourself up to be famous or to have a principal position in a Big-5 orchestra, your chances of success are not very good. So what do you do if you never attain this lofty goal? Do you mope around and think of yourself as a loser? If you “fall back” (a term that I hate) on teaching, for example, are you settling for something less than the best? (People who fall back on anything rarely do as good a job as the person who is doing it as a first choice. There are too many excellent musicians out there who aren’t falling back on what they do and are totally into it.)
I like to think of success in smaller units. When I’m playing second clarinet, if I can make the first clarinetist feel good about what we are doing together, I’m successful. If I can give a good lesson to a student and have him leave my studio ready to dig deeper into what we talked about, I’m successful. If I can add some horn or string parts to a car commercial that lifts up the30-second spot, I’m successful. These little successes build on themselves. Of course, you should have a dream—something that you aspire to achieve, but don’t forget to celebrate the little day-to-day successes.