How Can I Be Successful?

Weekly Teaching Tip – Dec. 4, 2017
by MaryAnnKehler

1. Know who you are.

What do you do better than anyone else? What is it about your style, your art, that is unique? What do your fans love about you? It is your song lyrics or your musical arrangements or your ability to act dramatic roles? What do you love doing? In musical theater, one of the unwritten rules is that a performer should only choose audition songs that they truly love – high notes or impressive riffs are not enough – the song has to resonate with the performer. Let that thought carry through with everything you do. If it doesn’t resonate, you will know and so will your audience.

2. Surround yourself with good people.

Find the best people you can. Remember that “best” isn’t always the guy with the highest fee. Find people who live and breathe excellence, who have a sense of humor, who can (almost) always find something positive in a situation, who are fair about money, who get things done when they say they will, who will go out on a limb to help if you are in crunch mode. Recently, I needed to build a new website, on short notice. Very short notice. I asked a few people for referrals and made it clear that I needed one-day turnaround, on a weekend, to create a simple site. That’s a big order. Enter Ericka, who is now my webmaster. Not only could she do the job, she was willing to come to my business, on a Sunday, so that our process could be interactive. Is that the best way to design a site? Probably not. But Ericka bought into my need, arrived early, worked three hours longer than she’d committed, built the site, and followed up the next morning with a series of emails while continuing to tweak the design. Will I ever ask her to do that again? Hopefully, I won’t need to. But she has my loyalty and I will refer business to her again and again.

3. Be frugal so that you can spend money when you need to.

Once money is spent, it can’t be spent on something else. Author David Bach – – calls it the Latte Factor. If you spend $4 at day on coffee and you do that 300 days out of the year, that’s $1200. Think about how much recording studio time you could have bought with $1200.

My gym charges $37 per month. I have to take my own towel. The gym just down the street provides a lovely, plush towel and the same equipment, all for the price of $98 per month. $61 per month for a clean towel. That’s $732 per year.

When you start recognizing what you can do with the money spent on unnecessary “things”, it’s amazing how quickly you can become frugal. Your band needs a new van. Define “new.” Would a previously-leased, low-mileage van with a 100,000 mile warranty, be a better choice than paying $20,000 more for a new one?

A few years ago, during the mortgage banking crisis and resulting recession, I decided to eliminate unnecessary spending. It was surprising to see that I was paying $401 per month for on-line subscriptions — several music sites, daily life tips automatically sent to my in-box, identity theft protection, in-flight internet service, a foreign-language class. Most of my music listening happened on one site, so I eliminated all the others. I’d been a victim of serious identity theft several years before and halting that protection service would have been a bad idea. However, after a three-minute search on line, I found a respected service for half the price I’d been paying. The in-flight internet service didn’t work a lot of the time, so I let it go. After six months, I’d probably visited the language site six times, so let that one go, too.

When that purge was finished, I’d narrowed down the on-line subscriptions to $109, saving $292 per month or $3,504 per year. That’s real money.

Beware of those monthly fees – I’ve trained myself to think of every one of those purchases in annual terms. “What does this cost me per year?” $3504 buys a nice vacation or a college course or a new piano keyboard or a laptop plus a smart pad plus a phone.

4. Be nice.

A couple of years ago, my long-time student, Denny, paused on his way out the door, just long enough to say, “Thanks, Mary Ann. I always leave your studio in a great mood.” Wow.

Then it hit me: the most successful people I know are nice. I want to be in the same room with them, to team with them on projects, to learn from them. Their “niceness” rubs off on me. Sure, we all have days – those times when we’re tired or grumpy or overworked. And we all – or at least most of us – take that grumpiness out on the unlucky people who cross our paths.

I often have the opportunity to hear Broadway performers talk with high school students about the theater industry. At the end of one session, I knew that the presenter, a thirty-ish actor, had just had a huge impact on the 25 students lucky enough to get to hear his talk. He spoke for 90 minutes, mostly about being “nice”, and the effect that had had on his career. He mentioned how connected the theater community is: how the person he just met may be close friends with the tech director on his current job or that they both appeared in the same show, but at different times. He shared that he had recently walked into an audition room and discovered that he had, at some time, worked with every person in that room, from the casting directors to the piano accompanist. Each of them gave him a warm welcome and he started the audition feeling great – and got the role. He told the students about helping another cast member practice guitar and how that cast member went on to land a contract on a show that required superb guitar skills, and how that same person helped him with choreography that eventually got him cast in his dream show. He gave one example after another of how being “nice” resulted in him getting work. Lucky students, to get to hear that talk at the age of 16 or 17.

5. Be prepared.

Lucky breaks do happen. Mostly, however, breaks aren’t about luck. They’re about preparation. Being a successful performing artist means being prepared. When the opportunity presents itself, you’ll be ready.

Think about it. It’s impossible to strengthen a weak voice overnight – sure, there are tricks that can cover weak spots, but a producer will hear those problems. Can a singer perform a song they learned the night before? Sure. Will it be fabulous? Possibly. Will it be better after it’s been broken down, worked, practiced fifty times? Highly likely. Wishing you could drop 15 pounds? That is doable in a week, but not advisable.

Practice. Practice. Practice. The history of this quote goes back many decades, through many authors, so I won’t attempt to credit them all: “Amateurs practice until they get it right; professionals practice until they can’t get it wrong.”

Whatever it is that you do professionally, practice until you can’t get it wrong.

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