The Rearview Mirror: what I wish I'd known in music school

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Hello! My name is Christine Beamer and I'm a violist, and also the Director of the Running Start program at Michigan State University’s (MSU) College of Music. In my daily life, I talk to bachelors, masters, and doctoral students about their career plans.

When I left undergrad at the University of Michigan with my newly minted degree, I had no idea where I was going in my career. After a series of left turns, I have arrived at a great career that allows me to perform, teach, and work with students - all passions of mine. But it took me a while, and some hard work to get there. Here’s what I wish I had known when I was about to transition from student to professional.

1) Keep pursuing multiple passions.

In the current music market, versatility is the name of the game. The more skills you have — playing alternative styles, improvising, arranging, composing, fundraising, organising concerts and tours, creating significant social impact — the more ways you have to create work opportunities for yourself.

During a recent visit to Running Start, Bulletproof Musician founder Noa Kageyama talked about creating a career by combining various expertise levels. For instance, I may not be in the top 5% of the world’s viola players, but when you include my skills in public presentations, networking, and mentoring, then I start to stand out. In other words, if you can be in the top 25% of several fields, and then find a way to combine those skills, you will start being a unique commodity.

This will also open up opportunities for what is commonly termed a “portfolio” career, where you put multiple streams of income together instead of relying on just one job. Which leads me to #2…

2) Welcome to the age of the portfolio career

In music school, it can be easy to hyperfocus on traditional career paths as the primary — or even the only — way to achieve success. I remember feeling that being a legitimate professional depended upon being able to create a national or international performance career, win an orchestra seat in a top tier orchestra, land a young artist spot at an opera company, or get a job as professor of X at Y university. These careers can be satisfying (and really can be obtainable, despite the cutthroat competition) but it’s also important to not just assume that is the ONLY way to be successful at music.

In fact, the world in general is shifting away from traditional employment models, towards what is sometimes called the “gig economy.” Some studies of the U.S. economy predict that by 2020, more than 40% of the US workforce will be "contingent workers" — a freelancing workforce.

If you talk to prominent music professionals, you’ll find this is already the case. Administrators who perform (for instance, the General Manager of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra is also a saxophonist and cofounder of New Music Detroit), performers who teach or consult as resident artists with businesses (Encore's own Paula Muldoon is an example), teachers who manage bands or chamber groups….you name it, you can combine it. So why stop at one career?

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3) Don’t be afraid to create your own adventure

Our current zeitgeist privileges change, innovation, and the “new,” and there are many ways to craft a career around activities for which you are particularly passionate and skilled.

One of the fun aspects of my job is interviewing many of our MSU alums who are arts entrepreneurs. It has become apparent to me that musicians often have the important characteristics of entrepreneurs already — talent for single-minded focus, grit, an ability to handle failure, and creativity. Take some time to read about some of the innovators in our field on a site like Fractured Atlas, and brainstorm about problems you would like to solve within music, or using music. Then go do it!

As one of my favorite entrepreneurship thought leaders, Seth Godin, puts it, “One reason it's so difficult to teach entrepreneurship is that we're not teaching tactics or skills. We're not teaching spreadsheets or finance or even marketing. No, when we encourage entrepreneurship, we're actually trying to get people to the place where they care enough and where they are confident enough to stand up and try to make things change. Don't tell me what you invented. Tell me about who you changed.”

4) You will keep getting better at your instrument after you stop studying.

This piece of advice is to all of you who haven’t won a major audition or position yet, and you’re facing down the prospect of high rent (or student loan debt) without the safety net of school. One of the most surprising things for me was how much my playing improved once I started teaching a studio of 20+ violinists and violists.

There’s nothing like teaching bow grip 10 times a day to make you refocus and examine the fundamentals. Since then, I find that as long as I stay focused on musical goals (and keep practicing regularly and work with mentors occasionally), I continue to develop more as a musician every year. Perhaps in another five years I’ll be able to play all the notes of Ride of the Valkyries at the correct tempo...

5) Network (authentically)

Musicians get to have more fun networking than pretty much anyone I know, because we’re usually performing when we do it! Any time you play a gig with someone new, or meet an audience member in the lobby, or meet a donor at an event, or tell someone at church what you do for a living….you’re networking.

Once I stopped thinking of networking as a transactional experience and started thinking of it as a relational experience, I started enjoying it a lot more. Essentially, networking for musicians is about finding like-minded folks who are passionate about what you’re passionate about. Over the course of time, if you find ways in which you can collaborate, so much the better.

All the people you went to music school with are now a part of your network — keep up with what they do, celebrate their successes, and sympathize with their setbacks. The music world is crazy small, and you never know who you might be creating art with next week!

Last, but perhaps most importantly...

6) You are responsible for creating the audience of the future.

I cannot emphasize this enough. If you care about music, and you think it is important, it is your responsibility to be an advocate for the arts. People make decisions about their discretionary income based upon personal recommendations, and it is an increasingly crowded field of choices. In the music world, we are too often guilty of thinking, “Well, I love this and I think it’s really great, why don’t YOU love it too?”

While passion is great, sometimes we as “experts” need to take the time to think from an audience standpoint. What are your audience’s needs? How could you meet those needs through the arts? What parts of the artistic experience might THEY find engaging? Take the time to make friends with people who aren’t musicians, and be an evangelist for classical music and live music.

This year, I have been trying to invite a different non-musician to every concert I play with one of my contract orchestras. It has been a rewarding and eye-opening challenge for me, and one of my guests even became a regular subscriber after her second concert! In the world outside music school, we as professional musicians are a part of creating a future that values the arts. It’s a wild ride — welcome aboard.


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