Letters to my younger self – a research project 

What advice would you give to your younger self as you took your first steps as a music college graduate?

Guest post by Kate Blackstone

This is the question I’m posing to music college graduates over the next six months, but when I began my PhD at the University of Leeds last October, all I knew was that I had three years ahead of me to explore the ways in which conservatoire graduates build their careers as young professional musicians. That’s the short explanation anyway, but it’s the way I tend to introduce my subject before unpacking what is a very complex situation.

Talk of musicians inevitably turns to the term ‘portfolio career,’ when describing the myriad activities of a musician’s day-to-day working life. The ‘portfolio’ of work that a musician may expect to undertake can include playing, teaching, arts admin, arts research, arts medicine… the list goes on. Even pulling apart the ‘playing’ bracket, many musicians play multiple instruments; not only on stage as soloists and ensemble members, but also undertake session work, accompanying exams and dance classes, and even recording YouTube videos. More than ever, today’s musicians are their own agents and promoters, displaying entrepreneurial tendencies as they run their own music businesses to make a fulfilling living. (For more about this, you certainly should read Frances Wilson’s article examining entrepreneurship and musicians’ careers, where she sums this up beautifully.)

As with many psychologists undertaking research in a field very close to their own lives, I found myself examining my own experiences as a music college graduate in order to explore the career building process. How much did the nature of the degree I was awarded affect my career choices after graduation? And how did I cope with this transitional point in my life: the part where I’d finally have to ‘go it alone?’ And how did my own experiences compare to those of my peers at the RNCM, and contemporaries at other music colleges in the UK and abroad?

I am a musician. When I’m not reading, writing, and wrestling with computers for my research degree, I’m playing the piano for students’ exams and recordings, teaching woodwind, coaching ensembles and arranging Justin Bieber songs for the flute. Oh, and playing the clarinet: the instrument in which I was awarded my music college degree back in 2011.

​My first year out of college wasn’t too easy: at least that wasn’t the way I saw it at the time. I had two days’ worth of teaching – mainly piano – at my old secondary school, a position I’d held as a peri teacher since 2008. I had four or five hours of private teaching – still mainly piano – back home near my parents’ place. I’d managed to land myself a day a week working for an old teacher at a music service fifty miles in the other direction…without a driving licence, let alone a car. On Wednesdays and Thursdays, I didn’t teach, and that was time where I would practise the clarinet. However, ‘clarinet practice’ was a term I used to describe the time when, in actual fact, I was sitting with my housemate (an oboist in a similar position to me), poking at some reeds, watching Big Bang Theory, bemoaning the lack of performance opportunities available to us and boiling the kettle for ‘one more brew.’

In numerous surveys of music graduates in Australia, Dawn Bennett (whose work continues to be the one of the best sources of statistics like these, albeit not from the UK) found that 97% of respondents hoped for a ‘portfolio’ career like the ones mentioned above, yet still based their views of musical success on a very narrow career aim. She describes this aim as ‘musotopia:’ “a place where performance ambitions are realised with an international career”, implying that anyone not earning money in this way, and this way alone, must be an unsuccessful musician.

Perhaps Dawn Bennett’s findings could explain a contributing factor to the situation I experienced in my first year out of college. On paper, I was by no means struggling. OK, I would never recommend music service work without a car, but I enjoyed the job, found it challenging, and it paid well. What’s more, I met one of my best friends through lift sharing, with whom I dreamt up my wackiest teaching ideas in the car! Building up a good reputation as a teacher meant I was beginning to turn down work, something that many of my contemporaries would not begin to experience until years later.

Why then, did I somehow feel like such a failure? My ‘musotopia’ wasn’t what was described above. I didn’t want to be an international soloist, and besides, I was never that type of player….and, admittedly, I didn’t fancy the practice regime that went with it. When people asked me what I was up to, I’d reply with a vague sort of ‘just teaching.’ Why now do I no longer feel like a failure? Not much has changed about my career since that first year, except myself and a few others did make a pact to retire the word ‘just’ – why diminish the good job that you do by devaluing it every time you mention it? Perhaps I play the piano a little more, for students’ exams. I certainly play the clarinet more, but most frequently amongst friends and ‘for myself,’ in addition to the odd paid gig. How and why did my vision of ‘musotopia’ change, and where did it come from in the first place?

In psychology, we use the word ‘transition’ to describe any period of major change in someone’s life. These transitions include marriage, starting a new job, moving home and, you guessed it, graduating from a degree. Although all these situations can present different challenges, all of them involve changes in roles, relationships and routines. Ultimately, these changes can lead to a renegotiation of identity. Does that mean that I experienced an identity crisis? Maybe, but does this happen to everyone, or was it just me? Above, I’ve shared some of my story, but the aim for my research is to find out what other people’s journeys into the music world were like.

I do have some predictions of what I might find in the first phase of my research, but I don’t want put words into anyone’s mouths, which is why I’m leaving my story hanging in mid-air above. Instead, I’d like my participants to tell their own stories, about what they wish they’d known when they had left music college: about themselves, the music business, about life in general. You might be wondering why this type of research is important, and what good it will do after publication. Current research suggests that graduation from a degree is a time fraught with uncertainty, not least for those in the creative industries, where career paths are less clear cut. A more thorough understanding of graduates’ journeys into the professional world could influence future curriculum design of music college degrees, as well as more generally aiding students themselves to achieve fulfilling careers upon graduation.

Whether or not you’d like to write for this project, please visit the website set up for contributions. Music college graduates are invited to write a letter to their younger self, and put in it the advice that they would have liked to have received when finishing their degree. The letters are being published anonymously online, and already the spread of responses that I’ve had has been very varied, ranging from pep talks (“you are awesome!”) to harsh truths (“you are thinking far too much about boys”). It is unusual to conduct what is a legitimate research project publicly through social media, but there seems to be a clear need for more discourse around the trials and tribulations of building a career as an ‘ordinary’ jobbing musician. Research into young people’s engagement with career advice suggests that stories from those at the very top of their game may not be what graduates and students need in the first instance, but rather, real down-to-earth honesty from more relatable peers and colleagues: ‘idols within touching distance.’ The data collected here will eventually contribute to my thesis, but by making it publicly accessible in the meantime I hope it will offer thought-provoking and informative reading for musicians and non-musicians alike.

If you’d like to read the letters already online, or contribute to the project, please visit http://letterstomyyoungmusicianself.tumblr.com. There is currently no deadline for submissions, and no letter is too long nor too short! Your anonymity will be protected. You may wish to follow the project on Twitter by visiting @2myyoungerself. If you have any questions or comments about the project, please tweet me using the handle above, or email me on letters2myyoungerself(at)gmail.com.

Kate Blackstone graduated from the University of Manchester in 2010, and the Royal Northern College of Music in 2011, from the demanding Joint Course. Since then she has forged a successful freelance career as a musician, combining a busy teaching schedule with frequent performances on both piano and clarinet, her principal instrument. From 2013 Kate undertook part-time study of an MMus degree in Applied Music Psychology at the University of Leeds, which she passed with distinction in 2015. She was delighted to return to Leeds as a full time PhD candidate in September, supported by the Stanley Burton Research Scholarship.

5 thoughts on “Letters to my younger self – a research project ”

  1. Thanks for your swift reply, Kate. I was actually thinking more of advice on how to make the most of the college years than the career which follows. Most parents can advise (somewhat) on school as they’ve all been there. But when it comes to college/uni specialisations, the odds go right down.

    For example, the advice I’d like to have heard before embarking on college courses is, ‘important as they are, don’t spend more time on books about music than music itself. If you want instantly to identify, for example, the movements of a Baroque suite, play and listen to as many suites as you can. Soon it’ll be obvious. You’ll then be using sound to identify sound rather than words to identy sound.’

    That kind of thing.

    1. Ah, I get what you mean. I agree with you there too! Like I said, there are studies looking for that kind of information, but my method is quite unique. I’d quite like to use it elsewhere (although we’ll see how I feel about that when I have to interpreting it to make sense of it all….!). Some of my participants, even though it wasn’t part of the question, have addressed themselves as both a college student and a college graduate. I suppose it shows how integral the student experience is, that people are still very much linking their student self with their graduate self at that stage.

      And so the ‘postbox’ continues to receive letters…. I wonder what the next ones will bring? I love how they have all been so different so far!

  2. Very much enjoyed reading the submissions so far and I’m looking forward to following this project as it continues. Thank you for sharing!

  3. This is a fascinating post. Might it also be worth repeating the process some day for those leaving school and starting music college? Apologies if you’ve already done that…

    1. Hi Alan, thanks for your reply, and glad you liked the post!

      I’ve not personally done that, with musicians starting music college, but you’re right, it could certainly strengthen the research. There have been slightly more studies geared toward helping students as they start degrees, some commissioned by the institutions themselves. It would be interesting to see what sort of effect an intensive music education pre-age 18 (e.g. specialist music school/ junior conservatoire) might have upon musicians’ experiences as they build their careers too. Perhaps something for future enquiry?

      Kate

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