Broadening the definition of success for music students.

This is me in fifth grade. At the age of 12, I remember my teachers telling me that if I continued to work, I could get a scholarship to study the instrument in college. Many began to tell me that I should pursue a career on the instrument.

When I was barely in middle school, my path was already being set for me.

The path of a classical musician is straight and prescribed.

The traditional path for a classical musician that has talent, interest and proclivity is straight and prescribed. In order to reach a high level of excellence on the instrument, proper setup and a deep pursuit of excellence is essential.

This type of training sets up an interesting situation: Practice and listen to what your teacher says and live to see another day or, don’t, and leave the art form all together.


As I mentioned in this post, I believe that students have many pathways to success and our job is to help them find their pathway.


All of this has gotten me thinking: What can teachers do to help students find their path. As a whole, the field should engage in a thoughtful dialogue about broadening the definition of success for students at the earliest age.


Deciding a pathway to become a professional classical musician is a great pathway, but it’s one pathway. This pathway has become practically the only way that teachers define success in their own teaching.  How do we change this dynamic? Here are some quick thoughts:

  1. First and foremost, I am not asking teachers to compromise their pursuit of artistic excellence. Excellence should sit as a strong foundation to everything we do.
  2. As in the visual above, applied teachers should have thoughtful conversations about the variety of career paths that students can embark upon, utilizing the skills developed as classical musicians.
  3. Change the tenure process to allow applied teachers to expand their definition of student success within their studio and broadcast it to students and their families. We should not be ashamed of students who pursue careers outside their instrument.
  4. Only 27% of college graduates have a job related to their major. With our changing economy, we should be preparing students to work outside their degree path.
  5. Finally, I believe it is our responsibility to help students understand that music is something that they can pursue throughout their lives, regardless of whether or not they choose to major in the art form.

As I reflect on the years of amazing training I received to become a better bassoonist, what resonates with me the most is how well the training prepared me to do what I am doing now, running community engagement and career development at Colburn. Going deep in pursuit of excellence on bassoon has prepared me to do many of the things I enjoy most about my work.

How are you encouraging a broadened definition of success with your students? I’d love to hear about it in the comments 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.

5 thoughts on “Broadening the definition of success for music students.

  1. Hi Nate, Many thoughts to share, but letting you know Thriving in the Arts and Income from Outreach (leading to children’s programs in Bay View and Petoskey) are still ongoing at the Bay View Music Festival. In recent summers I have had several bassoon students who are in Music Therapy and Nursing degree programs. They totally get that chamber music is helping build their teamwork skills which they will rely on heavily in their workplace along with knowing the healing potential that music provides. Also, students seem more appreciative of and take seriously their work study positions, especially stage crew, which builds teamwork and understanding of behind the scenes aspects of the performing arts. I encourage them to include their work study positions on their resumes. Employers look for those who are willing to roll up their sleeves to help the company or organization thrive!

    All the best to you,

    1. Thanks for the great comments, Jill! A lot of my foundational work in this space came from the experience you provided at Bay View all those years ago! Thanks so much and thank you for offering this great perspective.

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