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Stephen Schwartz on the Importance of Persistence

Career Principles

On Persistence; facing fears

Question: 1. How did you get started, and do you think someone today could become a composer/lyricist following the same path?

Schwartz: I do think that the path I used to become a professional composer/lyricist is still the one that most aspiring writers I know (and I come into contact with many through the ASCAP Musical Theatre workshop I run) are using. It is, very simply this: write a musical. Go to someplace where musical theatre is actually happening, such as New York, or to a lesser extent, places like Chicago or Los Angeles. Start trying to get people to listen to your musical. You will begin to make contacts and meet people and eventually, if you have talent and more importantly persistence, things will start to happen. I do think that being part of a program such as the BMI or ASCAP workshops is useful, more in terms of the contacts you make than in the techniques you learn, though I obviously believe the craft issues are important too or I wouldn't be teaching them.

Question: I was thinking about your response to the question about composition that someone asked you, and was especially intrigued by your comment that suggests that persistence is even more important than talent.
It's an intriguing thing to think about. Do you think there are a lot of people who have "made it" who perhaps aren't necessarily very talented but are extremely persistent? (I won't ask you to name names!) I'm sure there are a lot of talented people who haven't made it, and probably don't have the persistence to try. Do you think there's a point at which, no matter how persistent a person is, they won't make a name for themselves because of lack of talent? Just some thoughts and questions that were floating around in my poor sleep-deprived brain. Peggy

Dear Peggy: Yes. I have seen many astoundingly talented people not succeed for lack of persistence. I have also seen less talented people go very far indeed because of their persistence. I'm not sure that it is possible really to make a name for oneself if one is completely talent-free. In a case like that, all the persistence in the world may not be enough. But very few of us are Mozart, or Paul Simon or Joni Mitchell for that matter. Let's just say that the combination of talent and drive is far more likely to lead to success than one without the other. Hope this answer lets you get some sleep now. Best, Stephen Schwartz

Question - [Something about facing fears]

Stephen Schwartz: I think every writer, particularly when he or she is starting out, experiences the fear that his or her project will fail or, worse yet, be ignored or never even heard or seen. (This feeling often alternates with the over-aggrandized feeling that he or she is writing the greatest masterpiece of all time, and one's mood swings back and forth.) This simply comes with the territory.

But if you're going to be a professional writer, that's one of the things you have to deal with. With experience, one's expectations and fears both get more realistic. But I can't tell you that those feelings ever leave entirely.

The best advice I can give you is to try to stay true to your own taste and vision as you work on your opera, so that at the end of the day, at least YOU like what you've done. I wish you the very best with it.

Q: What is the best way to go about establishing myself as a professional songwriter?

A: I wish there were an easy answer to your question . I guess the best answer I can give is to keep writing, to be really tough on yourself when you write and to go back and rewrite what you think is not good enough about a song until you're satisfied it's the best you can possibly do, and then to try to play your songs for people who might be of help to you: other musicians, singers, club owners, people in bands, etc. You can hire singers and a recording studio to make demos of your best songs so you can send or give them to people. If you're talented and perseverant, eventually this will yield results. That's about the best advice I can give; as I say, there's no easy step-by-step route. Best wishes with your songwriting. Sincerely, Stephen Schwartz

To send suggestions, comments, or questions write to carol@musicalschwartz.com

Read about Stephen Schwartz's persistence in Defying Gravity by Carol de Giere

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