Here Are 20 Universal Truths About Being A Classical Musician

A lot of classically trained musicians don’t want to hear what I’m about to say, but….

There are 20 universal truths musicians must adopt in order to have a successful career in the year 2023.

1. TRUTH: It will take at least 5 years for you to stabilize in your career after college. You need to have a financial plan for how you will survive during that time or you’ll likely need to leave the profession.

2. TRUTH: Your career isn’t over if you don’t win that orchestra job or collegiate teaching position.

3. TRUTH: There are WAY more graduates than jobs. I am not a pessimist, I am a realist. Use this knowledge to help you plan.

4. TRUTH: It is ok to say NO to an opportunity.

5. TRUTH: Your online presence (social media, blog, website, YouTube, etc.) is a powerful tool that can help sustain you during low work periods.

6. TRUTH: You are going to have to do more than just perform in order to be happy and successful.

7. TRUTH: Playing in orchestra is incredibly bad for your hearing (says the guy who played for years in front of the trumpet section). Invest in fitted earplugs.

8. TRUTH: As a classical musician, it is your responsibility to attend concerts and support your colleagues.

9. TRUTH: While on the topic of attending concerts, YOU NEED TO PAY. I have a hunch that if all of us purchased one subscription package a year, we could single-handedly keep the profession in business.

10. TRUTH: It is your responsibility to bring an audience to a performance. I have long hoped that music schools would make a student’s final recital grade based on the percentage of people they were able to bring to their recital. For example, if only 28 people attend a recital in a hall that seats 100 people, congratulations, you fail. (ha!)

11. TRUTH: Communicating Beauty > Perfection

12. TRUTH: Our field is very small and we remember difficult people. They are not asked back.

13. TRUTH: We need concerts where the audience is invited to move and make noise when the music speaks to them.

14. TRUTH: You should absolutely expect to be paid for your work. You should also know that most performing arts organizations are hanging on by a thread and are paying you the most that they can and still be able to keep the doors open.

15. TRUTH: Gatekeepers hold less power than they ever have in the history of our field and they represent a smaller and smaller slice of a career for successful musicians. Stop waiting for gatekeepers and diversify your work portfolio.

16. TRUTH: Every single top-tier music program in the country has some kind of professional development program for the students attending their institution. If you’re in school, take advantage of the programs offered. If you’re a graduate, go back and explore the incredible offerings now being offered.

17. TRUTH: What you have to say with your art is the only thing that will set you apart from everyone else. Fit in where you must, and be radically different everywhere else.

18. TRUTH: Burnout is real. We are losing great people from this profession because of it. We need to take care of each other.

19. TRUTH: In 2023, art is local. Stop defining success as a 30-stop international tour and start building beautiful relationships with your neighbors down the street.

20. TRUTH: Always channel WHY you got into this field in the first place. (my why is on a post-it note on my mirror so it’s the first thing I see every morning.)

What’s missing?

Photo Credit: Marcus Winkler

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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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