What do musicians do all day?

“What do you actually do?” and “What is your day job?” are all-too familiar questions to musicians. People are also endlessly fascinated about practising – “so how much practising do you actually do?” – and imagine we spend most of our days closeted inside grim practise rooms, cut off from the real world. Others believe we spend our days lying on a chaise-longue in a Lisztian salon, smoking cigars and pondering the higher things in life.

In reality, the musician’s life is busy, varied and by necessity very peripatetic. Musicians are masters of multi-tasking and the “portfolio career”, and many juggle several roles – performer, teacher, administrator, promoter….and some of us even have jobs outside the profession to supplement meagre teaching or performing fees. Few live by concertising alone and a very tiny handful enjoy celebrity status (deserved or otherwise) and the trappings and sponsorship deals which come with that.

Day-to-day, most of us follow a fairly similar regime of practising (which can occupy a large part of the day – four or five hours – but never done in a single session), teaching (and preparing for teaching), and admin, which can include the business of everyday life, contacting potential venues and promoters, marketing and social media, liaising with others, filling in forms to applying for funding and replying to fan mail. In addition, for those who work with ensembles and orchestras there is rehearsing and meetings with colleagues, publicists, promoters. In the evening there may be concerts or other rehearsals. Some teach in schools, universities and conservatoires, others run outreach and other educational programmes, courses and summer schools. All these activities need to be planned and prepared for, and therefore generate a lot of admin which consumes precious time. Email and the internet undoubtedly make these activities easier, but one still has to set aside time. Admin gets in the way of practising, which can set up feelings of resentment and frustration.

The sheer job of playing notes also tends to mitigate against further sitting at a [computer] keyboard – neither activity can be good for our health. 

The working hours can be very unsociable indeed: concerts generally take place in the evening and afterwards one may face a long trip home on a late night tube or train. More extensive traveling can be very tiring and interrupts both one’s normal working day and sleep pattern which can in turn have a detrimental effect on one’s health. To counteract this, most of the musicians I know make time to do exercise – from the pianist friend who regularly runs half-marathons to the bass player who meditates, this “time out” from the busy, sometimes punishing schedule is important for one’s physical and mental health.

What musicians certainly don’t do is exist in ivory towers, separated from real life. Many have families, mortgages or rent to pay, cars to be serviced and MOT’d, just like everyone else. But weekends are not like other people’s – many musicians work over the weekend, and there is often little differentiation between weekdays and Saturday and Sunday, when others may be enjoying time off.

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That we do something highly artistic or creative does not make us immune to the exigencies of real life – nor ignorant of them. Many of us feel frustrated that our work is often not properly respected nor understood – the “what is your real job?” question comes up all too frequently, and explaining or justifying what we do to people outside the profession can feel like a Sisyphean task: how can doing something we love be regarded as “a proper job”?

To justify our existence, I feel we have a responsibility to ourselves and to our colleagues and others in the industry to conduct ourselves with professionalism at all times. If we do not respect ourselves we cannot expect respect from others and our professionalism demonstrates to others that we believe our role has value and importance in society, whether teaching small people Bach’s first Kleine Prelude or playing to a full house at Carnegie Hall.