A very interesting discussion the other day at an event organised by the Worshipful Company of Musicians to find out whether young musicians feel they’re getting enough career advice.
Many young musicians said sadly that in music the bar is set very high for ‘success’. In the world of performance, everyone thinks ‘success’ means international stardom; this is what most students strive for when they enter music college. By the time they leave, it has dawned on most that stardom only comes to a few, and not always to the most deserving. If they discover they’re not amongst the high-flyers, they turn their thoughts rather belatedly to other ways of making a living within music. But they often feel that their revised goals make them second-class members of their institutions, whether anyone says so or not. It’s enough to study in an atmosphere where the high-flyers are so idolised.
Someone gave the example of a well-known American music department which took in 100 clarinet students and was thrilled when one of them landed a Principal Clarinet job with a major symphony orchestra. The college authorities boasted about this achievement at various meetings. ‘What about the other 99 clarinettists?’ someone asked. ‘They don’t count’, was the answer. A joke, perhaps, but not that far from how the other 99 often feel.
Music is unusual because the training usually starts in childhood. Young players travel hopefully for years towards ‘success’, bolstered by the support and dreams of their families. By the time they’re full-time college students they have invested a lot, financially and emotionally, in their musical careers. It’s very difficult then to revise their aspirations ‘downwards’, yet most of them eventually have to do so. When this happens, they stop thinking of themselves as potential winners and start wondering if they’re second-rate, even if they are excellent musicians and well placed to be tremendously useful to their communities. It’s an unfortunate by-product of a training which starts with a childhood dream, long before the age of rational decision-making or a realistic view of the world and its opportunities.
I can’t think of other professions where ‘being successful’ means being internationally acclaimed. If you are a teacher, doctor or lawyer, success means that you are making a valued contribution to your community. You don’t have to be known internationally to feel that you’ve ‘made it’. If only the same were true of music.