Northwestern University viola professor Helen Callus describes the combination of skills necessary to succeed as a musician - talent being just one in a mixture of abilities


Being successful at anything takes a combination of skills and abilities, some of which are not as apparent as we might think and some not as significant as we might expect.

Obviously without musical talent nothing is possible. However, over the years I have noticed that even those with the greatest talent are often times overtaken by those with a broader combination of skills. There is a mixture of abilities that seems to lend itself to success and musical talent is only one part of that equation.


There is no question that being naturally musical goes a long way to creating a successful musician. There are some who are born with an ability to be musical, have a nice sound, interesting ideas and play with sensitivity. But unfortunately, talent alone isn’t enough to propel someone into success. In some ways, talent can be the smallest component of a broader set of skills as long as the other abilities are in abundance.


There is a large part of the journey of becoming a musician that requires an understanding that failure is going to play a significant role in your development. Failure is information and how you react to these experiences may be the key to how successful you are. Students as well as professionals can suffer tremendous anxiety from being unable to bounce back from failures. Master inventor Mir Imran said that 'Failure is a constant companion, and success an occasional visitor'. His point being that failure and success go hand in hand.


There are many times in a musician’s life when we cannot face another hour in the practice room. Developing the habit of practising no matter how you are feeling, physically or emotionally, will help in professional life. Creating a daily schedule of when you will practice and sticking to it and then creating a practice schedule for each hour of your practice can keep you motivated, focused and efficient. Keeping a notebook nearby to write down a thought you might have about something in the music or what metronome mark you got to in breaking down a passage all lend themselves to being disciplined in everything that you do.


Information gathering is part of what makes us creative as artists but it also allows us to tackle really hard technical issues in our playing. A student spends about five per cent of each week with their teacher so a large part of learning and progress is done by you through experimentation until you find patterns or solutions that work. Not becoming overwhelmed by problems but enjoying the idea of breaking things down into smaller elements or mechanics allows everyone to progress. But you have to have the confidence to do that on your own. The teacher guides you down the right path and will give examples of how to proceed but in the end, you do the work.


There are many times in our profession which involve being around other people. Most individuals will likely end up in an orchestra, chamber music setting or teaching and we have to learn skills that enable us to work with people we may not agree with. We also need skills that allow us to communicate with a pianist or colleague about something we want to try in the music. Social skills are not limited to rehearsal etiquette but also encompass how we carry ourselves professionally. Returning phone calls or emails, how you conduct yourself in administrative matters related to your career – these are all elements that can influence whether or not you are hired or invited to perform for a second time.