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Success or not success? That is not the question

Success or not success

What success is, is up to you to define; otherwise someone else will do it for you, according to Camilla Overgaard, musician and keynote speaker at the Music Student Conference 2020.

Around 30 audience members had found their way through the warren of hand sanitisers to the Levin Hall at the Norwegian Academy of Music (NMH) on Friday 30 October. Keeping the required distance between audience members, every numbered seat was filled when project managers for the Music Student Conference 2020, Anna Rødevand and Siri Storheim, stepped up to welcome both physical and digital participants.

– Just over a year ago we both completed our bachelor degree here at the academy. And we felt a bit lost. We had made slightly traditional choices without quite knowing why. Music education, and perhaps classical music education in particular, takes a one-sided view of what constitutes success, the two NMH students began, before introducing the first speaker of the day.

Camilla Overgaard appears on a screen on the wall live from Aarhus, Denmark where she recently graduated from the Royal Academy of Music as both a classical and rhythm guitarist. Or as a musician, a label she tries to use instead. This way, she avoids being pigeonholed in ways she does not recognise.

– I mix techniques from classical and rhythm guitar, so I’m a kind of hybrid, you might say. This also meant that I didn’t feel entirely at home at the academy, Overgaard explains.

The key to success

It was this sense of otherness that led her to begin investigating how society defines success by way of stereotypes. Success is often associated with hard work and an uncompromising attitude, a desire to sacrifice everything.
Do an image search of the word success in Google, and you will find people climbing upwards, conquering stairs and assuming a power pose atop mountains.

Higher music education also espouses specific notions of what a successful musician is and does, according to Overgaard. They win competitions, release albums, receive awards and gain media attention. But could working on an intriguing pedagogical question be just as successful?

– If you don't define what success means for you, then other people will do it for you,

Camilla Overgaard Key note speaker, The Music Student Conference 2020

Focusing on the "why"

As a music student you often identify with what you do, she continued. You are defined as a pianist, singer or guitarist, although this does not tell us anything about the more minute qualities of the individual.

– What describes what we do, but not who we are as people. How distinguishes us from each other. One musician may perform concerts in the dark in order to reinforce the listening experience, while another likes running a full light show. What is the same thing, how refers to different forms of expression. But we often forget to talk about the why,” Overgaard points out.

She cites the Golden Circle model developed by the American author and public speaker Simon Sinek, illustrated as a target with the word why as the bullseye in the middle. His theory, supplemented with Laura Nash and Howard H Stevenson’s article “Success that Lasts”, suggests there are more complex criteria for success than just one formulaic ideal.

– Having studied 100 individuals, Nash and Stevenson arrived at how to approach success with new eyes. One single goal can never meet a human’s complex needs and wishes,” Overgaard explained and presented the two professors’ components for sustainable success.

  • Happiness – feelings of pleasure or contentment about your life.
  • Achievement – accomplishments that compare favourably against similar goals others have strived for.
  • Significance – the sense that you’ve made a positive impact on people you care about.
  • Legacy – a way to establish your values or accomplishments so as to help others find future success.

A personal kaleidoscope

– They compare the four components with a kaleidoscope. When you look into a kaleidoscope you see different things depending how your turn it. Success is not something exclusively related to work. It concerns everything we do. My advice is to create your own personal kaleidoscope. We are assessing all aspects of our lives.”

– An element can cover all four categories, Overgaard continued, before bringing up the release of her own EP “Det er ganske vist!” (2019) as an example. The project gave her and her family a positive experience, she was happy about the achievement of publishing her own music, and she received feedback from people who had found pleasure in her music. The project also created opportunities for others since the proceeds were donated to Unicef.

– Success is not a goal in itself, because it’s not a destination,” said Overgaard. She finished by putting a big fat cross over the question of success versus no success.

– The question is: what is important to you, and what are you doing about it?”

Camilla Overgaard Key note speaker, The Music Student Conference 2020
Project leader Siri Storheim introducing first speaker of the day Camilla Overgaard, joining in via Zoom from Denmark


With Overgaard listening in on the big screen, a student panel took to the stage to discuss the talk they had just heard.

– It was great to get a concrete suggestion which puts into words what many of us are thinking about – which gives us a few pegs to hang things on. Success is an important question – not just to us as music students but as humans,” said Susanne Trinh. She continued:

– When I started at NMH I had an idea of who I was going to be as a classical pianist. Success is something different to me now than it was in Year 1. It’s very fascinating, it’s not one destination.”

– Can exams be a limiting factor? Do we feel that we have to do certain things in the exam to be successful?” mused moderator Siri Storheim.

–True, how can my concert, how I perform my music and be myself be measured against something else? It feels a bit restrictive,” said Annie Eline Lundgreen, classical saxophonist and chair of the student committee at NMH.

– If two students performed the same piece and the teacher agreed with one of the interpretations, that version would be considered better. Those who grade us have more power than the students have. It’s important that we know that and that the teachers are aware of the power they yield over us,” said Trinh, before concluding:

– It’s important that music students get a chance to talk about this. It’s nice that we have a forum in which to say why.”

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