Are you on a path that leads to a successful career in music?

Last week, I wrote this post with the hopes of providing advice to college students interested in working on their careers beyond the walls of their university.  That post got me thinking: What do students majoring in music actually need out of their education to be successful?

For those of you searching for meaning in your college experience, I would like you to consider two paths:

  • The path of a Mechanic.  Mechanics in music perform, teach, and recreate great music better than anyone else in their field.  Like an auto mechanic who fine tunes pre-existing cars, a music mechanic focuses on fine tuning pre-existing music. (Think, perfecting of excerpts for an orchestral audition.) Your path is one paved in tradition. Creativity is expressed in a very narrow, accepted window of performance practice which has been dictated by your teacher, conductor and the music written on a page.
  • The path of a Designer: Designers in music create new ways of thinking about the art form and quite often cross genres, disciplines, or even career silos to somehow bring something new to the field.  You’re comfortable with the unknown and the things that move you are beyond the predetermined field in which you’re pursuing at a university.  Unlike the mechanics in music, designers in music seek to break free of pre-existing art forms.

Seems pretty black and white, right? Let me be clear, there is nothing wrong with either path as long as you have a complete understanding of the tools you’ll need to be successful.  Most music schools have been designed with the mechanic in mind, giving students foundational skills in their art that allow them to enter the “workforce.”  The problem is that our workforce looks a lot different then it did when the curriculum was set.

Let’s take a look at this from a workforce prospective.  A career in music requires human capital (IE, your time) and can’t be automated.  There are more musical mechanics entering the workforce than ever with fewer and fewer jobs in the marketplace.  With an oversaturation of musical mechanics, costs are driven down to the point that, quite often musicians are working for far less than they expect to be compensated.  No longer can you only rely on your technical prowess as a musical mechanic.  In truth, in this world you now have to be both a designer and a mechanic. (For more information on this, click here)

As individuals and institutions look out into the workforce, many see the path of the musical designer as a way to empower students to become employable, 21st century musicians. Designer centric skill sets for the 21st century musician such as recording skills, self marketing and creating a digital presence are making their way into the fabric of a college degree in the spirit of enabling students to become more well-rounded and career ready.  With this in mind, I believe there is a third path in which all music students should be thinking about:

  • The path of the Designer, who doubles as an amazing Mechanic: In the field of classical music, there is very little room for people who can’t infuse qualities from both sides of the aisle into their career.  Great designers in music will have little to say and won’t have credibility in the field if they aren’t great mechanics.  Great mechanics, for the most part, won’t have a sustainable career if they’re not thinking as designers.

You will be entering the workforce in less than four years and I strongly encourage you to explore ways to strengthen your skills as both a designer and mechanic.  Here are some suggestions to get you started:

  1. Don’t try to do it all: If you are certain that a career in music is in your future, my suggestion would be to focus on your work as an artist first and practice.  In order to ultimately be successful in this field, you must be an incredible mechanic so make sure any path you take allows time for you to focus on building your skills as an artist.  You also need time to synthesize that practice, relax, and enjoy time with friends and family. Here’s a great post about about finding balance
  2. Pick ONE design-related skill and own it:  One of the biggest fears I have is that an institutionalized, (think, classes for credit) curricular approach to building the 21st century musician will overstretch our students. Being a designer doesn’t mean being able to do everything. Instead, pick one design-related skill and own it.  Here’s a list of design-centric traits to consider:
    • Master Social Networking—Pick one, (Blog, Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, Pinterest, Instagram, the new thing this 30-something doesn’t even understand, etc.) completely understand the platform, and use it as a marketing tool to build a following. Here’s a great article on the subject. 
    • Develop a music related skill (Video Recording, Audio Recording, etc) that will sustain you. There are tons of options.  Here’s one: Purchase a Cannon T3i and start making videos for youtube. Need some inspiration? Here’s a great video that one of our Colburn Conservatory students made completely on his own.  Here’s another.  
    • Create a chamber ensemble (band) and start performing.  Do NOT become a non-profit.  Form your group, find a venue, and play.  Your task is to get as many people to be passionate followers of your group as possible.  Hint: What you think paying customers will want is often far from reality.  Your goal is to create great art that attracts an audience without feeling like you have sold out.  Need inspiration?  Check out Christopher Rountree and his incredible ensemble, wildUp.  
  3. Consider a minor, or a double major: Nothing can prepare you for a hybrid career in the arts than a double major.  I strongly encourage you to consider this path. Check out this nice post about pursuing a double major.  
  4. Understand and become comfortable with the idea of Service Exchange:  Going back to the idea that the world is changing, Service Exchange is beginning to take hold nationally as a way to sustain orchestras.  At Colburn I have set up a Community Fellowship Program that addresses service exchange in a real and meaningful way for our students.  Each year, my office offers a menu of opportunities that mirror the type of experiences musicians find themselves in when they land a job with an orchestra.  These opportunities include experiences in Teaching Artistry, Interactive Performances, and Community Performances.  
  5. Don’t be afraid of the “f” word: Don’t be afraid of failure.  There, I said it. De-couple your work in the practice room from your work you do exploring new pathways for your career.  In the pursuit of new pathways, do not be afraid to fail epically, learn from that failure and keep going. You know, in other fields, there are conferences completely dedicated to failure.  Embrace it.  

What did I miss?  Are there other design related items we should know about?  Who do you know that is actively pursuing this area of our profession?  What skills or activities are you pursuing at your institution to develop your skills as a mechanic or a designer?  Please let me know with your replies below.

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Nate Zeisler is the Dean for Community Initiatives at the Colburn School in Los Angeles. He envisions a world where students majoring in the arts have a clear path to a sustainable career, where creative minds are empowered and inspired to rule the workforce, and where access to the arts is not just for the privileged few, but for all.

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