Wednesday, July 03, 2013

A Ramble About Leaning In

I have to admire the marketing that has been done to promote Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In, and I admire the way Sandberg admits her past tendencies to sell herself short in a corporate world where men still set the rules of the game. (No link is necessary for the book, since you have probably heard about it.) There has been some lively Sandberg-stimulated discussion comparing the problems that women have competing in the world of business with the difficulties that women have being recognized as equal players in the world of musical composition. I contributed to that discussion, but in retrospect I no longer believe that there is a true parallel.

In the larger world, the field of "classical music" is terribly small, and the field of new music composition makes up only a tiny percentage of what we call "classical music." Automation has pretty much relegated those of us who write and play to small corners of the culture where we have to struggle to get some kind of compensation for our work. Most of us have to supplement our lives with extra-musical activity in order to survive, and those of us who are good at self-promotion probably spend as much time doing "business" as writing music. Or more.

The men and women I respect most (in music and in other creative fields) tend to be people who don't spend their time on self promotion.

While I was watching an interview with Sandberg on 60 Minutes Sunday night, I started to think that I might be guilty of selling myself short. Success is measured in sales and in salary in Sandberg's world. Her success is founded on generating more sales for her business, and her business is essentially about marketing stuff to huge numbers of people by way of a social network. She gets a huge salary for the work she does.

In music composition there is no "salary negotiation." Conductors and principal players in orchestras can negotiate salaries, but like lower-level college instructors, most of the "rank and file" players have salaries that are not negotiable. Commissions can be negotiated, but most people know that if they commission a piece from a good composer of any gender, the piece will be of the same quality regardless of whether it costs $1,000 or $100,000.

The proof of what a composer can do is in the music itself, and in that regard men and women are absolutely equal (though not all composers are equal: some women are better than some men, and some men are better than some women). Sandberg mentions that women often attribute their success to luck and hard work and not to their "skill set." Men, she suggests, attribute more of their success to their "skill set" than to luck and hard work.

In music, skill is the active currency. In good music it is the only currency, and the only thing that matters. Success is measured in long periods of time by other people, but in short periods of time for the composer. I think of success phrase by phrase, but it might take ten years for anyone to notice. In the case of composers who are no longer living, it might take centuries for anyone to notice.

My "skill set" does not include selling stuff to people. I have tried, and I have failed miserably. But I can create something out of nothing, and I can provide a medium through which people can express themselves individually and collectively. I can play to make myself happy (and feel other emotions), and I can play my instrument in a way that helps other people to feel. For those reasons I am extremely successful.

Sandberg goes on to say that every woman she knows feels guilty about the choices they make. I don't feel the least bit guilty about the choices I have made. I am the CEO in my own creative empire. I make all the decisions about who plays what, at what tempo, and at what dynamic. I choose which notes stay, and I decide which ones have to be removed. I decide the lengths of phrases, and I command them to go where I want them to go. I choose the harmonic material, and the articulations. I feel all-powerful when I am writing music. Perhaps that's why I love to do it.

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