Although, can we make 30s the new 20s?… (You’ll get it if you read on.)
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A Word to Young Musicians
Q. Times are difficult for young musicians, especially in this economy. Gigs can be few and far between, competitions can be cutthroat, and there’s always the looming, dark shadow of doubt that can plague any musician, especially one with such a long road ahead. What would you say is the most crucial piece of advice a musician in his early 20s could receive, either personally or professionally?
A. Thanks for writing to me, Andy. I take your question to heart and wish I could offer some real answers. Times have always been hard for young musicians, and right now things are hard for almost everybody. So I can imagine your frustration.
First off, I’d say always remember how fortunate you are to be gifted and skilled enough to pursue a career in music. Still, I know how hard the struggle can be.
Every time I heard someone talk about the long, difficult road to becoming a doctor — with medical school, residency, grueling hours, no sleep and more — I get very impatient. Yeah, yeah, yeah, it’s a long tough road. But a medical student travels that road knowing that without question it will lead to an immediate place in the profession.
Contrast this with aspiring musicians, who go to school, take out loans, study and practice, and practice and practice, and do so without any certainly that this will lead to anything. Now that is really difficult.
Yet, struggling young musicians have payoffs every single day, because they are doing something they love — making music. And that is special. Think of how many people are working securely in professions and jobs that they may like well enough, but hardly love.
I have no glib advice for your current difficulties. But I have noticed one thing as I look back at my own career and the careers of my friends from music school days. The musicians I knew back then who have managed to have stable careers are not necessarily the ones who were the most talented or the most ambitious. They were the ones who seemed the most content being musicians. The pianist always willing to play the first performance of a new chamber piece by a student composer, happy to have a work-study job accompanying the students of a voice teacher, ready to learn the piano part to the Hindemith Tuba Sonata (which is hard, let me tell you) to help out a tuba player preparing a degree recital. Young musicians who have that kind of contentment with their work, even while struggling, tend to fare well, in my experience. Whereas I have known other young musicians, sometimes formidable talents, who unless they saw a path to Carnegie Hall and a touring career became so frustrated that the pleasure of being a musician went away. Some just gave up.
But the other piece of advice, if I may, concerns keeping your options open. Today, we are told that the contours of careers in all fields are changing. Given the revolution in communications taking place right now, young people should get used to the idea that they may change careers during their professional lives.
Having focus and determination can be tremendously important. Making up your mind that you are going to be a violinist, a teacher, an actor, a writer, no matter what, that kind of drive can get you through rough times.
On the other hand, you don’t want to be so rigidly focused that you miss out on something that beckons, something you might not have thought of.
I am an excellent example of this career twist. As a young person, all I wanted was to be a pianist, play music and teach music in a college. I was doing all of that, and happy about it. But then, in my 30s, I lost my teaching job. While looking for other jobs, which were scarce, I had this idea that I could be a critic. I loved writing. And to me, being a critic was like being a teacher. So I approached The Boston Globe, and they tried me out. One thing led to another and here I am.
The point is, if you had told me in my 20s that I would someday have the job I hold, I would have laughed. But looking back it makes complete sense that I wound up in this field. If I had been singularly focused on getting another teaching job, my career in criticism would never have happened.
Does this help at all?
Keep in mind that you are very young. If by your 30s you are working successfully as a professional musician, you’ll look back at your struggling 20s and have a good, though somewhat wistful, laugh.
All the best, Andy.