Building Career Diversity

In much of what is taught in music schools these days, there is a rift between art and practicality. Teachers often extol the virtues of esoteric artistic aspirations, while forgetting to instruct students on the business of surviving as musicians. But the Victorian notion of the artist as a poorly endowed businessperson is an antiquated and false one. Both artistic and practical considerations are critical to the happiness and success of musicians. And for string players, the notion that there is no career in music unless one wins a major orchestral position is equally false.

The relationship between music as art, and music as vocation has intrinsic conflict, even at the loftiest levels in the music business. For instance, an up-and-coming soloist, in great need of a concert fee to pay rent, and hard at work building a career, may be offered a solo date with the New York Philharmonic on short notice. This could create a conundrum: it is not a good career building move to turn down a date with the New York Philharmonic, but is it prudent to risk a major appearance with less than adequate preparation time? And what about paying the rent? The parallels to this situation exist throughout the business, and aspiring musicians will do well to understand this, if they are to make wise choices in their careers.

For many aspiring string players the thrust of their education is threefold:

  1. The study of solo repertoire, which fosters skills integral to achieving instrumental mastery, but only in rare instances offers a career opportunity.
  2. The study of chamber music, which is the clearest path toward high level ensemble skills and is artistically rewarding, but also, rarely has practical vocational application.
  3. Studies aimed at winning a major orchestral position, relatively few of which are available.

This leaves a great many well-trained string players feeling like people without a country, when upon graduation they fail to prevail at major orchestral auditions. Even for the elite who do capture major orchestral positions, the artistic and emotional future for them in music can be bleak, as they find that initiative and individuality are necessarily subsumed by the needs of the large ensemble. It is a well-known fact that many orchestral string players become quickly jaded by the mechanistic aspects of playing in an orchestra. Over time, many cease to be enriched by the music they play, except financially. Ironically, they may come to feel just as disenfranchised by their success as colleagues who did not win major orchestral positions are by their failure.

The cure for this problem may lie in how we prepare string players to regard themselves and their careers. By fostering a sense of autonomy, and helping string players to develop their entrepreneurial skills and drive, we can make players who feel empowered to create their own artistic environments, and are able to separate the vocational from the artistic aspects of their lives as musicians. Specifically, it is important for string players to understand that diversity of experience is essential to future success. To play, to teach, and to mind the business of being a musician, are the threads of existence common to nearly all musicians. To create artistic and economic opportunity is the prerogative of all musicians.

Most musicians must cultivate an entrepreneurial sense to be viable both vocationally and artistically. Mozart, for example, was among the first musicians to develop the subscription series concept. Beethoven was meticulous in his business dealings with his publisher. Similarly, musicians today should have the business knowledge necessary to survive economically, without relying on merely one employer.

Students should be taught the specifics of teaching: setting up teaching studios, communicating well, putting together small groups to play occasional dates. They should be given audition training, as well as training in professional deportment, both as freelancers and as salaried players. And teachers and students should demand and seek out courses in these skills at their learning institutions.

Artistic opportunity for string players comes most clearly in the form of chamber music and solo performances. However, these are difficult enterprises with which to make money. Still, string players should be consider playing, performing, and organizing satisfying musical experiences, as a critical component of their careers, if not their livelihoods. Some string players consider that they support their chamber music habit through playing in orchestras or teaching. But string players should view the playing experience at all levels, and in all ensembles, as well as the teaching, as informing and feeding their artistic lives. The point is, that if it were only about making money, no realistic person would choose a career in music. And if a well paid orchestral position were the only measure of success and fulfillment, the pursuit of a career as a string player would be for most a foolish, even rash choice.

Many teachers discourage young musicians with the rhetorical question, “What will you do?” And some aspiring musicians should be discouraged from pursuing the profession, but not because they are unlikely to end up in a major orchestra. Rather, the question is whether or not they will find a career in music satisfying, in the orchestra or out.

Being a musician is about having music play a major role in your life, while also being able to earn a living. Aspiring string players thinking along lines other than these would do well to reconsider their goals and reevaluate their vocational choice.

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