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Try Smarter

Barron Ryan

"I have 13-year-old students with more repertoire than you."

For all the talk about how failure helps lead to success, it still really stings. At age 23, a couple years after graduating with an undergraduate piano performance degree, I thought that getting my master's at a prestigious music conservatory was the way to get my performing career started. So I visited a few schools and played for some of their professors, and one of them literally told me, "I have thirteen-year-old students with more repertoire than you."

Crap. I wanted to play the piano better, gain recognition, and eventually play concerts for a living, and I couldn't even compete with pianists ten years younger than me. I still went through with the application process, but not only did I fail to get into the most prestigious conservatories, I didn't even make it past sending in my recording to receive a live audition. Epic fail.

And it wasn't like I wasn't trying. I knew that I had work to do if I wanted to catch up to other pianists my age, so I was practicing six hours a day and doing everything I knew to be a better applicant. I wanted to try harder, but I didn't know how.

So I tried smarter instead. I was losing at the classical music game, and realized that I needed to change the rules. Instead of trying to perform Chopin or Beethoven better than literally every other classical piano student in the world, I'd perform exact transcriptions by pianists like Oscar Peterson. Instead of using a graduate degree to validate my playing, I'd prove myself to people who only really cared about enjoying a great musical experience.

I redefined my approach to performing, and that made a world of difference. There are no set rules to succeeding as an artist, so change the rules to what you're good at and start winning.

Read more about my artistic identity here: 'Why Classic Meets Cool?'.