Have you got what it takes?
The aim of most young instrumentalists planning a career in music is – as it has been for generations – to get a place a music college/ conservatoire. It’s a great idea. Music college is fantastic. It’s immersive, and young musicians have the opportunity to study with really great teachers and devote themselves to hours and hours of practice in order to hone their techniques and learn about their chosen field. Beyond this there are opportunities to perform and compete in lots of different settings, if you’re an orchestral musician you’ll learn about the audition process, and if you’re lucky perhaps you’ll get your first professional work somewhere down the line. It’s an incredibly energetic and exciting place to be.
This was the path I went down twenty (cough) years ago, and I don’t regret it for a single moment. I would absolutely encourage others to do the same….
…but here’s the thing… When you graduate, you are very unlikely to walk into a salaried job doing the thing you went there to do in the first place (playing or singing). In fact, in all likelihood it will never happen... You need to be damn good as standard, your face needs to fit (yes, it really does!), and to a certain degree those planets need to be in alignment too. Of course it’s also possible to enjoy a worthwhile & rewarding freelance performing career, but it’s competitive, and even regular freelancers will usually need another other source of income.
I’m not trying to depress you – actually far from it – so bear with me while I talk about myself for a bit..
I graduated at the top of my year at both undergraduate and postgraduate level at music college. I didn’t go on to get an orchestral job (to be honest I only did a handful of auditions), but I was lucky and freelanced for many years with orchestral clarinet sections who were for the most part very loyal and supportive. I supplemented work as a freelance clarinettist with some teaching which I juggled (and I do mean juggled!) around the travelling and playing. So far so good. Eventually I met my husband through work, and ‘settled down’. And that’s when the trouble started ;)
I remember telling one orchestral manager that I’d probably be free to work again three months after my first baby was born. She was a mother herself and advised me to wait and see how I got on…. It turned out I massively underestimated the effect that having a child would have on my life, and consequently on my career. At three months post-partum I barely knew my own name and in the end I was only able to get back to playing when she was around 14 months old. I can recall desperately trying to express milk for her in a portaloo at an outdoor gig followed by a speedy drive home! The glamour....
We didn’t plan it, but my husband & I ended up going down the ‘attachment parenting’ route with first one, then two, then three kids. Becoming a parent did affect my career opportunities (I don’t think that’s exclusive to music btw - it happens far more often than people admit, especially if you’re freelance), but other things changed too. My tolerance for the casual sexism I sometimes encountered also went into major decline. Things that had once seemed incredibly important suddenly didn’t seem so important anymore. I basically ended up taking a ‘career break’ – with no idea if I would end up having a career to go back to.
With my hands full and reluctant to waken small children once they finally went to sleep I found I needed new (quieter) outlets for my creativity – and I began writing and experimenting with henna art. Discovering that I was more than a musician was a major revelation! I began to realise that henna, the written word and music have a lot in common – they are all crafted by the artist out of core patterns (words, scales/ arpeggios, shapes). However this time I was teaching myself – I was improvising - something I found incredibly difficult to do on the clarinet. I began to realise that perhaps I was more than an instrumentalist, and I began to think of myself as a creative person.
As time went on (and the kids got older) I found myself desperate to get back to ‘myself‘, and myself meant music and playing the clarinet. But time away from the orchestral world and a new perspective on life meant I now viewed myself more as a creative being with something meaningful of my own to offer, my own ‘voice’, and my own ideas... Being able to play what's on the page, the way your colleagues do, and the way a conductor wants you to is so so important, but it's not the only thing... A simple shift of mindset was all that was required to allow me to see a whole host of new possibilities. Instead of being inside the box I had grown up in, I found myself outside of it.
Better late than never.
My career now isn’t the way I thought it would be when I first graduated, but ***NEWSFLASH*** life happens! And it will happen to you too in one way or another :) I now get even more joy from playing the clarinet and my career is more varied than I ever imagined it would be! No two days are ever the same. I work with people from age 4 to grandparents. I am much more open-minded in my approach to music-making. I lead workshops and am inspired by closer relationships with artists from other art forms. Music college equipped me with many of the skills I needed as a clarinettist but it by no means gave me all the skills I needed to be a music professional. And these days, that’s what it takes.
Now back to you – young musician with a world of possibilities at your feet/highly-skilled orchestral musician facing change….What do I want to communicate to you as you continue your musical journey?
I want you to know that music is your vehicle, but you are good at it because you’re a creative, because you’re an artist. You don’t need to confine yourself to any box... Plan, practice, prepare, but know that flexibility and adaptability is your best friend in the modern musical world. Your passion and creativity will enhance your work in ANY field. Believe it.
Here are a few practical suggestions from me:
The Practice of Practice.
About nine months ago now (and at the recommendation of my dentist!), I joined my first yoga class... Although I'd been doing yoga on my own for a long time, I found taking part in a class to be something completely different and I am so happy it's a part of my life now!
I would imagine most yoga classes work in a similar way, even if the content varies. You begin by connecting mindfully to your breath and letting go of the 'outside world', and then you work your way through a series of poses under the guidance of your teacher. The class usually ends with 'yoga nidra' which is where your body rests and relaxes fully while your mind is awake and in a sort of meditative state. During this part of the class my teacher will often draw one activity to a close so we can begin the next by saying: 'now we release this practice'; and something about this phrase (said with a beautiful Italian accent) has stuck in my mind...
As a child I remember my mother drilling me on scales. I hated every minute of it! I saw the time spent with my clarinet as a means to an end... If I'm really honest I probably only kept playing because it brought me some positive attention! In the years that followed I often only practiced because I needed to work FOR something. Exams, concerts, work, whatever... I had a goal in mind. I was pretty good at meeting those goals too, and so it continued, all the way into my professional life.
I now realise that my practice left a lot to be desired.
You see no matter how often I did it, and no matter how good I got at it (and with apologies to anyone reading this from America!), I wasn't exploring the practice of clarinet playing in its (correct) form, as a noun... Practice was something I did, but I didn't find it a meaningful and mindful experience in and of itself. Even though I was learning the music or training my hands, I wasn't fully experiencing the practice of playing the clarinet. I was always trying to GET somewhere, but without really enjoying the journey.
When we find something difficult, be it in something in a piece of music or just a situation in our life, it's common for us to 'tense up'. When we become tense and anxious our breathing becomes shallower and our pulse rate increases. These are normal physiological responses to stress. Yoga teaches us to relax into postures. It teaches that even when something is difficult at first it becomes easier if we go at it gently, little by little. We need to allow ourselves space and time to grow into the postures. Yoga teaches us to focus on the breath in those tight spots and twists... What a gift to be able to bring that philosophy and physiology into my practice of playing the clarinet!
Now I approach my daily practice in quite a different way. I am kinder to myself, I am less anxious, I am more mindful, my breathing is better... I ACHIEVE MORE. Of course I still have goals and things I need to work towards, but they are no longer the only thing I'm focused on. My daily relationship with my instrument is the most important thing, everything else comes from that.