Mentor – an experienced and trusted adviser
(Oxford English Dictionary)
A mentor is not necessarily a teacher. The musician’s journey is a complex one, requiring many years of highly rigorous, focused training, and a consistent routine of work (practising) and performing and/teaching, and more…. While many of us have studied with particular teachers during this journey – teachers who have helped carve the path for us and form us into the musicians we are today – we may encounter or seek out others along the way to offer advice, support, encouragement and honest critique.
The most obvious definition of a musician’s mentor is someone you might play to – a master teacher (perhaps recommended by your regular teacher) or well-regarded musician who is able to offer a different perspective and insights on your music making which inform not only the evolution of a specific piece or pieces or music, but also your personal development as a musician. We might visit such a person on a number of occasions during our career – I know of several renowned concert pianists who still refer to a mentor for guidance.
A good mentor is able to offer advice and critique in an honest yet sympathetic way, providing support and inspiration, and instilling in one a sense of empowerment and personal autonomy – qualities which I believe are crucial in our ongoing development as musicians and which enable us to create our own artistic vision and persona. In addition, a mentor is a brain to pick, a sympathetic ear to listen, a nudge in the right direction and a guide in achieving one’s goals. The best mentor-mentee relationships are built on mutual trust and respect, and shared values, and while the mentor may be superior in knowledge and experience, there is a certain equality to a good mentor-mentee relationship.
Of course not all mentors are musical ones. We may seek advice in managing our career and dealing with the business side of being a professional musician, someone who can inform and guide us through the minefield of building a professional profile (including creating a website and online presence), approaching promoters, funding applications, tax planning and so forth.
Trusted friends and colleagues can also act as mentors, offering advice and support over a range of issues, musical or otherwise. I have a very good friend, a medic by profession and an advanced amateur pianist and piano teacher whom I regard as my mentor. His positive pragmatic approach (playing the piano is not a life or death scenario!), sheer pleasure in music making, and an ability to critique my playing honestly and helpfully without making me feel inadequate or insulted, has done more for my confidence as a performer and self-esteem as a musician in general than any teacher.
Another acquaintance, a concert pianist, has been helpful in acting as a kind of “coach”, challenging my interpretive choices and asking me to justify every decision made within the music (technical and artistic, specifically in relation to the late piano sonatas of Franz Schubert) in a way which was non-confrontational, stimulating and respectful. This was not “teaching” between master and pupil, but rather a more equal discussion about the music. One of many interesting outcomes of this particular relationship was when he told me our discussions had taken him back to his scores, to examine the music in new way in the light of our conversations. Thus, mentoring is a two-way exchange.
We may also cultivate “inner mentors” who resonate with us and who we have identified as offering us what we need for ourselves. These may include a fictional character or a great musician whom we admire. As we resonate with these mentors, we make them our role models, tune in to their special qualities, and draw these into ourselves so that we can utilise and be inspired or motivated by them.
Having a mentor or mentors is not about dependency, but about wanting to grow, push boundaries, learn and explore and being willing to allow someone to guide you – more than you could do on your own – in a direction that is your own. Mentors can pave new internal ground too, giving one greater self-trust and confidence in one’s path and purpose.