It's very hard to carve a career as a musician, never more so in today's fast-paced, highly competitive and image-driven world. The changes in the industry are unparalleled in history and therefore so are our roles as musicians. Today it's not enough to aspire to be a virtuoso - it's almost impossible to build a career out of simply playing concertos by Beethoven or Tchaikovsky. Now classical musicians need to be prepared to turn their hand to a variety of activities within the profession - performing, teaching, collaborating, promotion and more.
"Portfolio career" is an over-used term, but if you have imagination and passion, there's plenty of scope to pursue a multi-layered career. Of course, it can be hard to know how to develop these skills when one's specialist training focuses on performance to the exclusion - almost - of anything else. Some conservatoires now offer courses in entrepreneurship, which include aspects such as promotion and branding, building a website and using social media, but largely the narrow focus remains on the pursuit of excellence in performance at the expense of experimenting and developing skills relevant to today's society. Thus, musicians may leave conservatoire or university ill-equipped to deal with the exigencies of modern life, with little practical knowledge on how to launch a career. Today's musicians need to enter the real world armed with talent, entrepreneurial instincts, a willingness to work hard, and a very thick skin.
As highly-trained individuals, musicians have skills and expertise which are easily transferable and which bring artistic, educational, social and economic value to society. Unfortunately, the prevailing attitude outside the profession (and occasionally within it), is that such people do not bring real, quantifiable (i.e. economic) value to society (a view which is regularly refuted by academics and economists): as a result our work is often classified as "not a proper job". This means that musicians have to work harder than ever to earn respect, recognition, appropriate remuneration and status.
The concept of "entrepreneur" may seem at odds with the life of the musician, but in fact to the two roles are very alike, and there are strong historical precedents: composers like Bach, Haydn and Mozart were actively engaged in organising and promoting their own concerts, running and developing their own businesses. Beethoven complained that the need to be "half a businessman" encroached on the practice of his art.
Unless you are extraordinarily talented and have, preferably, won several prestigious international competitions, or are bankrolled by a generous patron, you are not likely to be picked up by one of the big artist agencies or promoters. Because the industry is so competitive, it is not acceptable to sit back and wait for the promoters to seek you out. You need to get out there, preferably before you leave college, and you need to adopt a flexible and open-minded attitude to work.
Teaching, for example, should not be seen as a "second- or third- best" option if you are not getting as many performing engagements as you'd hoped for.
Today, your success is largely in your own hands (unless you are being "managed" by someone else), and many musicians choose to take responsibility themselves to retain control over their career and as a way of remaining flexible and open to opportunities as they present themselves. In addition, the notion that the business side of a career in music has to be handled by an agent or manager does not apply to musicians today.
Instead, musicians are creating opportunities for themselves and colleagues which engage a wide range of skills from planning and budgeting to collaboration with other musicians, writers, artists..... It's important to find ways to explore your artistry outside of conventional contexts.
Use contacts made at college and beyond and get into the habit of networking whenever the opportunity arises. Keep a notebook with you at all times and follow up on potential leads: work doesn't come your way if you spend all your days in your practise room. Surround yourself with people who can help and support you, and be prepared to learn new skills such as simple graphic design to produce publicity material or how to use social media effectively. Be willing to delegate and don't be shy about asking for help. And if you think a "big name" artist will attract a bigger audience, don't be afraid to approach that person - often, such people are keen to support younger artists. Have a flexible attitude to work and be prepared to try new things or take risks. Be imaginative and professional in the way you approach everything from programming to involving audience to fundraising, from checking that concert flyers and listings are accurate to dealing courteously with venue managers or press contacts.
Allow yourself plenty of time for planning, and accept feedback after the event, learn from your mistakes and move on, armed with additional knowledge. Don't undervalue yourself and maintain your artistic and professional integrity by refusing to take on "just anything".
Above all, love what you do - your passion and commitment will carry you through.
Frances Wilson is a London-based pianist, piano teacher, writer, concert reviewer and blogger on classical music and pianism as The Cross-Eyed Pianist. A keen concert-goer, Frances writes regular reviews for her blog and also for international concert and opera listings site Bachtrack.com. She is a guest writer for a number of classical music websites around the world, and she writes column on aspects of piano playing for ‘Pianist’ magazine’s online content. In 2015, her blog was ranked third in the top ten of British classical music blogs. Frances holds Licentiate and Associate Performance Diplomas (both with distinction) and currently studies with acclaimed pianist, writer and teacher Graham Fitch.
Photo credit: James Eppy
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