Impossible things

“There is no use trying,” said Alice; “one can’t believe impossible things.”

“I dare say you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

-Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

One of the most enjoyable parts of my job is visiting high schools to recruit students. I love going into these places, which are usually fizzing with energy and high spirits. In most schools, the walls of the classrooms are plastered with motivational posters of athletic, grinning people doing handstands, running marathons, or climbing very steep mountains, and have slogans like “The possibilities are unlimited!” and “Be whoever you want to be!” The thinking is that you can do whatever you want to do as long as you work hard enough.

I am complicit in all this. I have moral qualms about it.

Part of it is the unavoidable fact that high school students may lack inspiration less than they lack more tangible resources such as money for college (or money for food and shelter). The other part of this is that it’s simply not true that aiming high and working hard will transport you to achieving your wildest dreams.

Don’t we all know a sad tale of someone who worked with unflagging dedication to get good at music, yet never got to a professional level?

By the same token, if these slogans were true, wouldn’t there be a lot more ballerinas and astronauts in this world?

That’s why it was such a relief to read the Washington Post article “No, honey, you can’t be anything you want to be, and that’s okay” by the psychologist Erica Reischer.

Reischer recounts how she helped her toddler son tear up a book called “You Can Be Anything,” then explains why she disagrees with the philosophy.

Telling kids that they can do anything—whether fueled by imagination or hard work—obscures the critical role of chance in success. Not every child who wants to be a surgeon or sports star can become one, even if they work hard at it. At the same time, in every success story there is the grace of good fortune. As Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman puts it: “Success = Talent + Luck. Great success = A little more talent + A Lot of Luck.”

To this list of factors that go into success, I’d add “money” and “good teachers” and “location.” The fact is, it costs a fortune–in more than one sense of the word–to get good at music.

It’s not just that a professional-quality instrument costs much more than a nice car and in some cases as much as a house.

There are also the years of lessons, and those sure aren’t cheap. But you need them if you’re going to get in with a good teacher who not only helps you get better, but eases that tough transition into the profession as you start out. (We might file this one under “luck” too.)

Add debt from a bachelor’s degree and probably grad school too, and there goes another house-sized amount of money.

And then there’s the issue of trying to establish yourself in a place with a music scene you can get into, which takes time and money too.

Music costs money. Living costs money. There’s a reason so many music graduates are doing data entry to pay the bills while they desperately try to keep their chops so that they can, if called upon to do so, play gigs. And then there’s the fact that gigs don’t pay a whole lot. Nothing about music pays a whole lot.

Everyone loves a rags-to-riches story, but the fact is that you can’t become a classical musician (or an astronaut, or the President of the United States) without a tremendous amount of financial backing, a terrific education, and a bunch of other things that may not be available.

It’s just so much easier to get into this profession if you have a high-income family who can pick up the bills while you get started. When life is a constant financial struggle, you feel very, very far from the “Aim High! Dream Big!” slogans. Aiming high and dreaming big are easy. Actually getting there is the hard bit.


And yet, where would we musicians be without our impossible dreams? What would our world look like if we told young people “You will probably be average. You will probably be a receptionist. In fact, even if you do take the leap of faith and get a music degree, you’ll probably end up as a receptionist anyway. That’s OK. Being a receptionist is an honourable profession. Get really good at it and you can rise in the ranks, get promotions, end up an executive assistant in a trusted position with a decent salary, save money for your retirement, pay off your student debt, get married, eventually buy a house, have some kids…”?

I can tell you exactly what would happen. No one would feel inspired to do anything much. Being a musician sounds like fun. Being a receptionist doesn’t.

What’s more, I’d be out of a job, because no one would bother going to music school.

What’s more, I’d be a hypocrite, because I had some impossible dreams of my own, and I actually made it in the music profession.


Let me say first that I know something about being a receptionist. My technical title was Management Support Officer for a department of the New Zealand government, but it basically meant answering the phone and occasionally organizing various public servants’ schedules and meetings. I had a doctorate and (I thought) no possibilities for a career, and I wasn’t the only Management Support Officer in the world, or even in the building, with that problem.

I do not need to tell you that I had a bit of an attitude problem too. I didn’t want to arrange someone else’s fabulous meetings. I wanted to have my own fabulous meetings.

It didn’t last forever, even though for a few months it seemed it might. I managed to have my career because I was an extremely determined receptionist. Determined, that is, not to be a receptionist forever. In my down time, I asked my supervisor if I might be permitted to study scores and write articles at my desk so that I could keep music uppermost in my mind. When I got home at the end of a dreary, fluorescent-lit day, I forced myself to get the cello out and practise for two or three hours so that I could keep my technique up to scratch. If I was offered some orchestral subbing, guest lecturing, or other music-related work, I found a way to drop everything so that I could accept it.

In other words, I never gave up.

I worked extremely hard, and I made a lot of difficult sacrifices, including giving up my country to live in the United States.

And I was lucky. Lucky that I have supportive parents who gave me thousands even when they couldn’t afford it. Lucky that marvellous teachers including Natalia Pavlutskaya and the Takács Quartet took a chance on me. Lucky that Chamber Music New Zealand and Radio New Zealand gave me some much-needed exposure. Extraordinarily lucky that I landed a tenure-track job at the University of Idaho.

And I never gave up. Never. Never ever.

Did I achieve my wildest dreams? If you consider that my wildest dream was to be the second Yo Yo Ma, I guess you could say no. But what I did get–a career that I love where I get to perform and teach all over the world–is close enough for me not to regret a thing.

Does that make the ballerina/astronaut thing a delusional fantasy, a cruel building-up of hopes doomed to be dashed? Maybe. But the alternative might not be any better.

What should we do about this? Lead teenagers dreaming of a career in music around the dingy apartments and clapped-out cars of professional musicians, like Virgil showing Dante the Inferno? Make a conceptual art installation of our rejection letters, unpaid bills, and threatening notices from collections agencies? Tell these bright-eyed young people that dreams are much more fun when someone else is picking up the tab?

I don’t think so. We can only tell them that it might work and it might not. That you should only study music if you honestly can’t imagine your life without it, if having it as a beloved hobby would never be enough. But that if you can push through all the obstacles to success, the sheer dumb luck that you need to get anywhere, the neverending hard work, and the desire to quit, I can think of few better ways to spend one’s life.

And so, like the Queen of Hearts, I go on promoting the impossible.


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