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A Student’s Life: Living Outside the Box


So, you did it-you got into a great music school, maintained healthy relationships with your teachers and colleagues, and maximized your productivity during summer vacations. But now, with preparations for your degree recital in full swing and the Office of Student Services requesting measurements for your cap and gown, there’s no denying it any longer: THE END IS NEAR! Soon, your student days will be over, and you’ll find yourself thrown unceremoniously into that scary place called the real world, where there will be no more teachers to tell you how not to play your Beethoven sonata, no more conductors who will forgive you for coming to the first rehearsal unprepared, and no more ready-made meals provided more or less graciously by the workers in your illustrious dorm cafeteria. While your parents will hopefully allow for your indefinite return to the nest if necessary, the prospect of not being in school for the first time in your life is certainly a daunting one. You could kick the can down the road for a couple years and pursue additional degrees (like myself) but even the most comprehensive doctoral program won’t keep you in college until you’re sixty-five,  so you might as well face the music (literally) and start to plan for your inevitable encounter with reality. Here are five ways to think outside the figurative box so that you might avoid living in a real one:

1. Identify your non-musical skills

Don’t plan on seeing me at Commencement.

Unless you’re a robot hard-wired to play the violin perfectly, you surely have some marketable, non-musical skills, even if they seem to be insignificant. You might think that your ability to make exquisite chocolate-strawberry cupcakes will only serve to attract some sugar-craving friends, but if you market yourself as an alternative catering service to the school cafeteria, you might just be in business. It’s important to consider utilizing these types of skills to create a side business for yourself, because you can’t guarantee that your fairy godmother is going to float down from Oz on graduation day and grant you the orchestra job of your dreams. Additionally, discerning how you might combine your extra-musical skills with your musical ones will give you a significant advantage over your fellow job-hunting colleagues. There are hundreds of violinists out there, but how many also have business experience? How many can design a website? How many can write a press release? If you can identify and take steps to develop these skills now, you’ll come out of college with your own unique brand, and be in a much better position than your friends who can’t do anything other than play Don Juan faster than Dorothy can click her magic slippers (“there’s no place like seventh position….there’s no place like seventh position….”).

2. Bolster your online presence

You might despise Mark Zuckerberg for luring you into the black hole of Farmville, photo-tagging and awkward friend requests (“I haven’t spoken to her since sixth grade!”), but having a strong online presence is a must if you’re going to keep up with your competition. Aside from Facebook,Twitter, and YouTube, it’s also advisable to maintain your own personal website, or a blog if you’re lacking in funds. Be sure to update your all of your profiles regularly-a prospective employer isn’t going to spend too much time browsing a Twitter feed that hasn’t seen a status update since 2011, and if the only video on your YouTube channel is from your senior recital in high school, you’re not exactly representing your current abilities. Be very discerning in what you post, too, especially on Facebook. We’ve all heard horror stories about what’s happened to unsuspecting employees who didn’t think twice before taking to the keyboard to vent their anger, and you don’t want to end up as the subject of the latest one.

3. Start taking gigs now

If you’re planning to hang out in the city you’re currently living in, now is a great time to start hitting the gig circuit. Most jobs you’ll get will not require an audition, and if you demonstrate yourself to be reliable and competent, chances are excellent that you’ll be asked back. Taking a variety of gigs will be beneficial for you as well; if you find yourself in a future situation requiring you to decide between one job or another, being able to recall which one was better-run or better-paid will be a major plus. Most importantly, gigs are great opportunities to meet other musicians as well as prospective employers. You never know who might be in the audience, so start dipping your toe into the professional waters now while you’ve still got one foot on the student shore.

4. Plan to teach

Even if Glenda does come through and gets you a perfect orchestra job, there’s a very good chance you’re going to find yourself supplementing your income with teaching at some point down the road, so it’s not a bad idea to start getting experience while you’re finishing school. Attracting students is not as difficult as you might think; with your new degree, you’ll have a feather in your cap already, and if you’ve got some other fancy accolades to your credit, your phone will be buzzing in no time. Demonstrate professionalism in all of your interactions with students and parents (i.e. an email reading “lssn @ 4 tmrw?” will not give a very responsible impression) and do some research when deciding your rates (you don’t want to be charging seventy-five bucks an hour if Well-Known Teacher A on the other side of town is only charging sixty). Don’t avoid teaching on a professional basis merely because you lack prior experience, either; you have to start at some point, and you’ll be surprised at how quickly you begin to develop your personal style and methods. Aside from your extra-musical skills, this is one area of employment that you really don’t want to forgo, so definitely try to keep it as an option.

5. Remember why you’re doing this

It’s somewhat ironic, but within all of the hustle and bustle of practicing, taking auditions, and trying to make ends meet as a pre-professional musician, it’s very easy to lose sight of the reason you became a musician in the first place. Things can seem very overwhelming at times, but it’s amazing what a simple reminder of your rationale for pursuing this profession can do for your confidence. What drew you to apply for music schools in the first place? Was it an unforgettable concert, an inspiring teacher, or simply falling in love with your instrument? When you think about it, it’s kind of amazing that it’s even possible to make a living doing what we do. We basically just go around with these oddly-shaped instruments made of various types of wood and metal producing some of the most awe-inspiring sounds that humans are capable of. Through our performances, we touch the lives of our audiences, and through rehearsing and teaching, we touch the lives of each other. To be able to engage in such activities is a joy unto itself, but to be able to do so and make a living is a true privilege. So, as you encounter all of the usual bumps in the road, don’t forget why you’re traveling on that road to begin with. Reminding yourself of your passion and desire for music will not only inspire the music you make, but the people you share it with-and that’s what it’s really all about.

Okay, I’m done with my profound moment of the week. While the above points give some idea of the nature of entrepreneurial thinking, they’re only the tip of the iceberg, so take a moment to check out the resources linked below if you’re interested in reading more about how you can escape the fate of living in a dumpster behind your conservatory after you graduate. I hope you’ve enjoyed this month’s series on “A Student’s Life,” and that you’ve found the information in these posts to be relevant and helpful to your current endeavors. I am always open to suggestions for blog-able topics, so please comment or email me (contact information is accessible via my profile page) if you have any ideas in mind that you would like to see addressed on this blog. In the meantime, I wish you all the best for a healthy and productive student’s life that gives way to a rewarding and meaningful professional one.

Zach’s List of “Living Outside the Box” Resources 

Books (links to Amazon)
Ray Ricker, “Lessons from A Street-Wise Professor”

Angela Myles Beeching, “Beyond Talent”

David Cutler, “The Savvy Musician”

Online Resources
New England Conservatory’s Entrepreneurial Musicianship Blog

Bridge: Worldwide Music Connection

Comprehensive Listing of Links to Musician Job Websites (via Eastman School of Music’s Career Services Center)


More in this series:
The College Audition Survival Guide
The Five Most Important Relationships You Have in Music School
The Summer Festival Questionnaire

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