Lessons From the Lives of Acclaimed Musicians

Jul 27, 2018 9 Min Read
A look at some of the greatest musicians in recorded history, and a few from before.

Music has provided entertainment, inspiration and relaxation to human beings since the dawn of civilisation.

Along the way, it became big business too, raking in US$17.3 billion in total revenue worldwide for 2017, according to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry’s (IFPI) Global Music Report 2018.

Nevertheless, music remains an art, written and performed by creative geniuses who seem to have been born with a melody in their soul.

“All the best parts of art come from pain turned to celebration”, said English musician and actress, Natalia Kills.
This pretty much sums up the bittersweet life of many great musicians and how they channelled their pain into music, transforming it into a melodious celebration of the indomitable human spirit.

We take a look at the lives of five acclaimed musicians over the centuries for characteristics that enabled them to scale to great heights in the world of music, amidst personal trials.

1. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791)

As a child prodigy, he endured an ambitious father who dragged him to perform at international concerts, starting at the tender age of six.

Bear in mind, these musical tours covered countries across Europe in the 1700s, where young Mozart faced primitive travelling conditions. While on tour, he suffered a near-fatal illness when he was nine.

During his lifetime, Mozart achieved fame as a musician but went through poverty in the latter part of his life before passing away at the age of 35.

As an adult, he experienced being fired by his employer, the Archbishop Colloredo in Vienna. To add insult to injury, his father sided against him in this quarrel!

During his lifetime, Mozart achieved fame as a musician but went through poverty in the latter part of his life before passing away at the age of 35.

Talk about suffering for his art.

Yet Mozart has become immortalised through his classical masterpieces such as Serenade in G Major (many readers would be familiar with the tune, if not the title) and is celebrated as one of the greatest composers and musicians of all time.

Throughout his short but productive life, he composed over 600 musical pieces and greatly influenced Western classical music.

What was the secret to his prolific success as a musician? Mozart once said, “I pay no attention whatever to anybody’s praise or blame. I simply follow my own feelings.”

Clearly, he was a man determined to march to his own drumbeat. Imbued with a strong belief in his own talent and purpose, he was a showman but not a people-pleaser.

So, take a page from Mozart’s life manuscript and chart your own path in your chosen career.

2. Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827)

At risk of stating the obvious, it’s mighty hard to be a musician, let alone a great one if you have hearing disabilities.
Yet Beethoven, one of the classical greats, composed some of his best works in the final 15 years of his life when he was almost completely deaf.

He had a good start in his career, composing a couple of piano concertos, six string quartets, and his first symphony by the time he was 30.

However, his hearing had already begun to deteriorate in his 20s, when he noticed a buzzing sound in his ears.
The progressive loss of hearing left Beethoven feeling devastated as a professional musician and caused him great difficulty in daily communication. He wrote a letter to his brothers when he was 32, describing both suicidal thoughts and a determined resolve to keep on living and making music.

Instead of despair and suicide, he chose to concentrate on composing.

With sheer willpower, Beethoven succeeded in becoming a musical legend despite his setback. Over time, he was no longer able to play at concerts that raked in the big bucks – much like it does for rock stars today.

So instead of despair and suicide, he chose to concentrate on composing.

How did he do it? Fortunately, because Beethoven played and listened to music extensively in the first three decades of his life, he had a solid understanding of written music and how musical instruments and vocals would bring the notes on paper to life.

Furthermore, since it was a gradual hearing loss, Beethoven was still able to imagine how his compositions would sound like. Beethoven also improvised when composing at the piano as his condition worsened, by physically feeling the vibrations of the notes on the instrument.

This goes to show that both theoretical understanding and practical experience in our chosen craft can go a long way towards saving us during the storms in our career. It pays to put in time and effort for long-term success.

Beethoven personified both triumph and tragedy at the end of the premiere of his Ninth Symphony, which he directed in 1824. He had to turn around to witness the thunderous applause of the audience because he was unable to hear it.

3. Gloria Estefan (1957 – )

Multi award-winning singer-songwriter Gloria Estefan started her early life as a refugee.

As a toddler, she fled from Cuba with her parents to the United States (US) in 1960 after the Cuban Revolution. Estefan’s father, Jose, was part of the 2506 Brigade, a band of Cuban refugees who were involved in the unsuccessful Bay of Pigs invasion to overthrow Fidel Castro.

He managed to return to his family in the US, where he joined the US Army and was sent to serve two years in the Vietnam War. He came back diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

As a child, Gloria had to care for her father and younger sister while her mother worked during the day and attended school at night.

“When my father was ill, music was my escape,” Estefan revealed in an interview with the Washington Post. As a little girl, whenever she was sad and overwhelmed by the weight of the world she would hide in her room and sing, rather than cry.
She would turn this form of emotional release into a career, starting out as the lead singer with the Miami Sound Machine before embarking on a successful solo career.

Her rising stardom and life was threatened in 1990. Estefan was critically injured in an accident when a truck ran into her band’s tour bus on a snow-covered highway in the Pocono Mountains, Pennsylvania.

This occurred as she was returning from a meeting with then, US president, George H. W. Bush regarding her participation for an anti-drug campaign. Estefan suffered a broken vertebra and required surgery to implant two titanium rods to fix her spine. She went through painful physical rehabilitation for almost a year before going back to performing.
Very aptly, she sang her song, Coming Out of the Dark for the first time at the American Music Awards in 1991 where the audience gave her a standing ovation.

The little refugee girl from an impoverished family whom we know as Gloria Estefan today has also brought us beloved hits over the decades like Rhythm is Gonna Get You, Words Get in the Way, Here We Are and more.

While our life’s journey may not be as dramatic as Estefan’s, learning how to deal with stress and pain in an empowering manner; be it singing, exercising or talking with a trusted friend, can help us cope better in dealing with work and personal challenges.

To date, Gloria Estefan has sold an estimated 100 million records worldwide and won three Grammy Awards.

4. Eric Clapton (1945 – )

Clapton is considered one of the greatest guitarists of our time. One of his most memorable and soulful hits, Tears in Heaven released in 1991 and was, not surprisingly, born out of personal tragedy.

In 1990, Eric Clapton lost his manager and also fellow musician and friend, Stevie Ray Vaughan in a helicopter accident. Tragedy struck again on March 20, 1991, when Clapton’s four-year-old son, Conor died after falling from the 53rd-floor window of his mother’s friend’s New York City apartment.

When I first heard this story as a teenager and a young guitar enthusiast, it struck me that even the rich and famous were not immune to calamity and sorrow. Not even my idol, Eric Clapton.

Clapton took time to grieve away from the public eye before channelling his pain by co-writing Tears in Heaven with Will Jennings, for the soundtrack of the movie Rush. The song went on to win three Grammy Awards for Best Pop Vocal Performance, Male; Song of the Year, and Record of the Year in 1993.

Even more meaningful is the fact that Clapton lent his voice in public safety campaigns to raise awareness for childproofing windows and staircases, so other parents would not have to go through the pain he suffered.

5. Yo-yo Ma (1955 – )

A French-born American cellist of Chinese descent, Ma’s musical repertoire covers a wide variety of cultural influences. Besides playing classical music, he has performed and recorded an array of folk music including American bluegrass, traditional Chinese melodies, tangos and Brazilian music. He’s probably the most famous cellist in modern history.

As a child, he found it quite disconcerting to cope with his own divergent background as an immigrant. This included the mix of languages and cultures that surrounded him, having Chinese-speaking parents and then moving from France to the US at age seven.

But as a young boy, Ma’s resilience shone through as he not only settled in well in the US but thrived as a bright young musician. As a child prodigy, he performed for presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy.

Later, he would go on to graduate from the Juilliard School and Harvard University. A key ingredient behind his success can be summed up in three words: practice, practice, practice.

Pop psychology writer, Malcolm Gladwell espoused the concept that 10,000 hours of deliberate practice is required for someone to be a world-class master of his art. This principle was made famous by his bestseller Outliers, which highlights examples such as Bill Gates and The Beatles.

We haven’t clocked how many hours Ma has practised over the years when he first started performing on the cello at age five until today. However, it would be safe to say he would have spent thousands of hours practising over the 58-year span of his performing career.

A key ingredient behind his success can be summed up in three words: practice, practice, practice.

In line with Gladwell’s idea of 'deliberate practise', Ma highlighted that more than just quantity, it is the quality practice that matters.

“Practicing is not only playing your instrument, either by yourself or rehearsing with others – it also includes imagining yourself practising. Your brain forms the same neural connections and muscle memory whether you are imagining the task or actually doing it,” Ma was quoted in a New York Times article.

While many child prodigies and superstars have ‘crashed and burned’ along the way – cue tabloid stories of delinquent behaviour, substance abuse and domestic violence here – due to the pressures of the spotlight, Yo-yo Ma has persevered both as a musician and person.

Despite winning 18 Grammy Awards, he shows no sign of diva behaviour. He is loved by fans worldwide for his humble and cheerful manner on top of his humanitarian efforts.

Ma founded the Silk Road Ensemble in 1988 with a vision to “create music that engages difference, sparking radical cultural collaboration and passion-driven learning to build a more hopeful world.”

Inspired by the historical Silk Road that bridged the East and the West, the musical troupe aims to use music to bridge the gap between people of disparate cultures in a world that is often fraught with divisions today.

Ma has performed at numerous benefit concerts for humanitarian groups over the years. Not surprisingly, he has been a United Nations Messenger of Peace since 2006.

Concluding thoughts

All in all, these musical greats come from various eras, social, cultural and economic backgrounds. The common thread? Their passion and achievements as musicians.

Underneath their musical genius lies the inner resilience and perseverance that helped them rise through times of adversity and kept them grounded amidst all the accolades.

We too will experience highs and lows in our career and personal life. The next time we turn on the music, just remember there are often stories of sheer grit behind the sweet melodies that bring us so much joy.

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Justin Ooi TY, brand director at Go Communications, has 18 years of experience in corporate communications and marketing. His professional experience provides him with rich insights in public relations and brand-building through strategic engagement with stakeholders.

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