Close this search box.

Plethora of Musicians

Michel Debost | December 2012

    The word plethora sounds a bit high-minded. It is derived from ancient Greek and means, in more vulgar language, a glut, an overflow, or an excessive amount. These expressions of the common tongue imply a certain contempt of quantity as opposed to quality. In flute playing in particular, there are more flutists studying than ever before. Parents encourage musical activity almost as much as sports. In my view, however, parents grow worried when the musical hobby becomes a passion.
    During my student days, like many musicians and artists, adult family members would kindly say, “so you play the flute, but what are going to do for real work?” They were lawyers, doctors, priests, military officers, all professions that were quite bourgeois (comfortable middle class), who thought their positions were serious, and not a whimsical pie in-the-sky.
    Most people do not realize that a life in art is more than an occupation. For young people who pursue music or the visual arts, the future is made of dreams, and it is as vital as any other endeavor. True, the path ahead is made of arduous technical skills, many disillusions, and self-doubt. Even with constant work, opportunities, and luck, the road will not be smooth. An ambitious person will not be deterred from the dream, regardless of the crowded competition and the disappointments.
    Are there too many musicians or too many artists? This question is unavoidable, but who will decide, if not the person himself? In the realm of the visual arts, would anyone complain that there was a plethora of painters during the Italian Renaissance? Raphael, Botticelli, Michelangelo, Titian, Leonardo, Mantegna, Antonello da Messina, Caravaggio, Raphael, and Piero della Francesca. Too many? Of course not.
    Social or parental pressures are often reasons for a young musician to give up the dream. My first teacher, Jan Merry, a friend of the family, was not a completely professional flutist. He studied the flute in Caen with Monsieur Collomp, a Taffanel student, but also excelled in the field of electrical engineering. He served five years in the Artillery during WW I. Upon his discharge, not sure about his future, his solicitor father urged him to forget about music and get a real job. He was successful as a Philips engineer and as Professor at the Ecole Supérieure d’Electrécité, but he regretted all his life not having had the courage to decide to be a musician. He played the flute all the time with passion and was the original dedicatee of Jolivet’s 5 Incantations pour flûte seule, and other modern pieces. The main part of the pro bono lessons he gave me was playing duets, a boon for me since I became a very good sightreader. He conveyed his old ambition on me and persuaded my parents to let me try for the Conservatoire.
    As a teacher I was often called upon by parents to give an opinion about a young person’s chances in the music world. I used to be pretty sure of myself in my answers, until I realized that my diagnosis was often flawed. Some students were obviously gifted, and I thought they had an easy path. I came to see, however, that early successes made some of them complacent. On the other hand, less naturally gifted but ambitious young players (among whom I included myself) had to understand, assimilate, work and study hard to reach the same level, but often brought more of themselves to music and expression.
    In my student days, I was impressed with a Swiss classmate, Dentand, who was really leading La Vie de Bohème in Paris. He had a convertible car, a rarity in those postwar years, and quite a few girlfriends. He said he practiced very little, and yet he would, at 9:00 a.m., play flawlessly and beautifully his études and pieces for Maître Crunelle and us. I envied him. However, at the Concours, nerves and the lost hours of study caught up with him. I stayed in contact when he quit the flute. He is now the happy manager of his family’s dry-cleaning business.
    Teachers sometimes feel invested with the power of decision over the future of a disciple. When one has a gifted, musical and ambitious young instrumentalist under one’s care, chances are that the student will be good regardless of what the professor will attempt. If the personality is strong, even if the master disagrees with the student, the teacher’s role, in my view, would be to say, “I do not always share your opinion, nor do you share mine, but I am able to help you do what you want and to teach you the means to do so.” Perhaps, in the process, the professor’s view will prevail through persuasion more than by force. One of the duties for a professor is to avoid hurting or railroading a gifted student. The sign of a good school of playing and teaching is that even the less gifted play well. Julius Baker used to say, “I just have great students.”
    Obviously, not every college instrumentalist will be lucky to “make it.” Life is a great teacher. All the thought and effort invested in studying music somehow will not be lost. The process of learning to concentrate and organize one’s time, plus the experience of expressing emotions are irreplaceable in every walk of life. John Ruskin wrote, “The highest reward for a person’s toil is not what they get for it, but what they become by it.”