Winners and ‘losers’

17th May 2012 | Concerts, Daily Life, Musings | 6 comments

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.


  1. Mary

    This attitude about success in music trickles down to young people in all pre-conservatoire settings. What is wrong with being simply a person with just enough musical knowledge and technical proficiency to enjoy music for its own sake? I work across the range of abiities from beginner to advanced post-graduate, and with the least and most able. I do chamber music in some form or other with all of them (regardless of stage or standard) on a weekly basis, and although many of them enjoy public performances from time to time, mostly they just like the ‘wonderful conversation between friends'(in a room) that is its very essence. (And this can be at the most basic of basic stages of playing). What I hope for, when my pupils ‘leave’ at 18 for their next step in life, is that they have Music for Life – they can play music and share music with friends forever, and this music-making will always open interesting doors for them. (Whether as professionals or amateurs). Being completely at home with chamber music is a great social and personal asset – something invaluable but (to some) apparently without value. It’s hard to sell this music ‘for life’ and not ‘for exams and competitions’ concept to parents, and even pupils as young as six or seven constantly tell me about the exam successes of their school friends – so clearly it is a subject of competitive conversation in the playground. Recently a Swedish friend said, ‘Children should just be valued for being themselves – that is enough’. And another Swedish colleague said, ‘What is wrong with music for music’s sake? Why does it have to be for something else – like enhancing/expanding brain power?’ So, thank you Sue for airing this subject.

  2. Susan Tomes

    Very valuable point, Mary, thank you. You’re quite right that the competitive aspect of music begins awfully early. It’s such a shame when, as you say, music should be primarily about enjoyment and sharing.

  3. Karen

    I strongly agree; and yet without some level of critical acclaim, how will music lovers have a reference point for musical excellence? I have come across some interesting people through the years, some of whom were incredibly gifted, and yet did nothing with it, and others who were terribly challenged (ok, downright awful,) and yet refused to accept from anyone that they were not meant to share their voices from the stage. Some of the so-called “auditions” or “competitions” I have entered students in, or adjudicated, are a farce, since every person receives an identical award, regardless of their actual performance. I absolutely agree that the world would be a nicer place if we could appreciate music, the enjoyment and discipline, for itself, but do think we need role models of excellence to show us what we can aspire to, and what the dots on the page can become when in the hands of a real master. Perhaps as teachers, we should be communicating that success is, as you said, valuable contribution to society, yet without a few “stars” I fear we would sink to a general level of mediocrity.

  4. Susan Tomes

    It’s interesting, isn’t it, that there is such a vogue for television programmes featuring amateurs ‘having a go’ at something complicated – eg Strictly Come Dancing, Maestro, Masterchef – where the ‘human interest’ factor is obviously thought to be greater if there’s a chance of someone failing, picking themselves up, trying again, ‘going on a journey’. Someone who’s already made that journey off-camera is not interesting.

    I felt sorry last week for young trainee opera conductors who have studied for years and now have to see the BBC devoting a whole series to ‘celebrities’ trying their hand at conducting opera. It does make you wonder what is the point of trying to be really good at something, when there’s such an appetite for watching non-experts ‘having a go’. Maybe I should try my hand at presenting a maths programme – now that would be entertaining!

  5. James B

    Don’t put your daughter on the stage,
    Mrs Worthington,
    Don’t put your daughter on the stage!
    It’s a loud voice, and though it’s not exactly flat
    She’ll need a little more than that to
    Earn a living wage!

  6. Jeremy Hill

    I was reflecting on this very point whilst watching the Young Musician of the Year recently: some may achieve international stardom (true of several previous winners); I imagine most who appear at the final stages will make a career out of music; some will choose to do something else for a living and participate in music on a semi-pro or largely amateur basis. All can be considered to have made a success of music, but some will be disappointed, if they have set their sights a level above their abilities. This alignment of targets seems key to me, and should be a central tenet of realistic career advice, in music as in many other areas.


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