It can come as quite a shock to encounter a professional musician outside of their natural home of the concert hall. Generally, our only contact with them, as audience members, may be a brief conversation in the green room after a concert or at a post-concert CD signing. When on stage, musicians seem to exist in a strange ‘other’ world separate from ours; this ‘mystique’ is created partly by the musicians themselves who require a certain distance in order to work.

The virtuoso at home can be disappointingly ordinary, as I discovered when, some years before I started writing regularly about classical music, I interviewed a British concert pianist at his home in the leafy suburbs. I had expected something more refined, more esoteric. His piano room was not some Lisztian salon, as I had naively imagined it might be, all crimson swags and a bust of the composer for inspiration, or an ascetic monkish cell, but a tidy “office” equipped with the tools of his trade – a grand piano and a career’s worth of scores neatly lining one wall. What came as more of a shock was that he talked about the fine art of creating beautiful music for others to enjoy as if it were any other nine-to-five job. I later realised that this was his way of balancing his practice time and a busy diary of concerts with his obligations to his family, and the need for “down time”.

In fact, most musicians are normal people: they live in ordinary homes, have families, pets, cars to service, a mortgage or rent to pay. This “ordinariness” has been more than confirmed by the many videos musicians have released online of them playing in their own homes during the lockdowns imposed around the world in response to coronavirus. We got a glimpse into their living rooms and studios and discovered they are, generally, just like us! They “normalise” the incredibly artistic and highly intellectual thing that they do on stage in order to function day to day and get their work (practising) done. Because for them, music is their job.

But of course what marks them out is their ability to transform the normal into the beautiful, the pedestrian into the transcendent, and the everyday into the extraordinary.

Musicians are extraordinary. Their meticulous approach to physical and psychological conditioning is akin to that of an elite athlete and the parallels between sport and music are very close – from day-to-day training to peak performance. Musicians, like elite sportspeople, require discipline, dedication and commitment to do what they do and do it well, and many make huge sacrifices to achieve this.

In addition to finely-tuned motor function, musicians also possess superior cognitive skills as evidenced by their ability to process, finesse and memorise vast amounts of data in the form of notes and directions on the score, an activity in which they engage on a daily basis during the practice and study of the music.

Their working hours are long, arduous and often unsociable – the late nights, the travelling, the Sisyphean accumulation of airmiles, nights spent in faceless continental hotels in beautiful, historic cities they won’t ever have time to explore because of rehearsal commitments…. In addition, the profession is very precarious – and this has been amply and very sadly confirmed by the pandemic. It’s a lifestyle not many of us would choose.

And yet in spite of all of this, musicians have chosen this life. In interviews, many talk about how “the music chose them”, rather than the other way round, and speak of the incredible power music, and the desire to share it with others in performance, exerts over them. This need, this will to play is what drives them, and as audience members we can only marvel at this extraordinary cultural gift which musicians are prepared to give to us.

Image: Photo by Ivanna Blinova on Unsplash

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This article on the LitHub website caught my eye We Need To Treat Artists as Workers, not Decorations. In summary, the author challenges the entrenched notion that because artists (and by extension musicians) do what they do for “love”, they are not workers, in the sense of being gainfully employed and receiving a salary or payment, and that discussing art and money in the same breath somehow compromises or trivialises the art. 

We really must get over the romantic idea of the starving artist – or musician – living a bohemian existence in a shabby-chic garret in Hoxton. 2020, the year of the global coronavirus pandemic, has revealed some hard truths about the day to day lives of artists, musicians, and indeed other freelancers, as well as some unpleasant, prejudiced attitudes, particularly from politicians who have inferred that such people, because they love what they do they do, are “not viable” (i.e. they do not contribute sufficiently to society and the economy), should look for employment elsewhere, and do not need proper financial support.

Musicians need to eat. They have bills to pay and families to support. Let’s stop being coy about talking about money in relation to music. This seems to apply particularly in the classical music world (when we talk about “the music business” we are nearly always referring to the world of popular music), where discussions about entrepreneurialism, marketing and business plans are regarded as unbecoming, almost taboo, in a profession which is devoted to sharing some of the highest, most wondrous and sublime creative achievements of mankind with others.

The trouble starts early on. Having observed from the outside, and, briefly, the inside of the conservatoire system in the UK, and having talked to many musicians – students and professionals – and others in the industry, it is quite evident to me that trainee professional musicians are not being equipped to cope with the realities of the working life of a musician. The focus is largely on performance, in a rarefied atmosphere which discourages talk of “career” or “job prospects”, and instead encourages student musicians to believe that they can sustain a life as a performer when they leave college. Few music colleges offer courses on the business side of being a freelance musician; thus, musicians are often naïve about money because they’ve been told it cheapens their “art” to talk about it. It’s a high ideal, and one which is quickly shattered when students enter the real world. 

Add to this a prevailing attitude that because you do something you love you don’t need to be paid for it – nor should you ask for money. For goodness sake, let’s stop telling musicians that unpaid work is “an opportunity” and that they should be grateful for “the exposure”. Exposure doesn’t pay the bills!

When artists assert that they ought to get paid, and paid fairly, it’s because they want to make a living, not a killing. They want enough to keep doing it. Artists are like other professionals who work from a sense of commitment—teachers, social workers—and who opt for satisfaction over wealth. They still have bills to pay. You don’t have to be doing something for the money to want to get money for doing it. You just have to be alive.

William Deresiewicz (author of The Death of the Artist)

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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. 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 within the profession. 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 leave the ivory tower behind and 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. (In fact, a teacher who is also a performer can bring unique insights to their teaching – something I have covered in an earlier article for the HelloStage blog.)

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.

I am grateful to contributions for this article from my friends and colleagues Emmanuel Vass (pianist), Heather Bird (double-bassist and founder of Classical Evolution) and Fenella Humphreys (violinist)

This article was first published on the HelloStage blog