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The Graduate Interviews: FAILBUSTERS!

Walk into any music college and it won't be long until you hear students discussing the best way to succeed in the music industry. We're addicted and let's be honest, who can blame us? We work tirelessly at our instruments and at our performance, in a college full to the brim with talent, preparing for a work place where the applicants out number the opportunities. But what happens when age-old, sometimes unhealthy ideas for success creep into our discussions, becoming so lodged in our brains (either on a subconscious or conscious level) that anything less than fulfilling them, leads us to only think we've failed and won't make it?

I still remember one teacher on the first day of my undergrad, telling the class we need to be doing 4/5hrs of practice a day. As a fish out of water and eager to please, I had never been taught how to practice and this was the only information to hand. So that week, I started practising at 8am finishing at 1pm (no break - obviously) and then went home. 5 hours complete, success achieved... ummm yeah right!! Reality was, I burnt out and learnt nothing. Luckily over time, I learnt how to practice but hitting that 4/5hr target continued to played an all too important part in whether I thought I'd done well or not that day. And it would seem I'm not alone.

Over the past four weeks, I've been gathering statements from students and young professionals, Statements that have, in many ways, become some of the best known college myths, passed down from one generation of student to the next. So this month, I've gathered together some of the finest professionals in the industry to blast these music college myths out of the water.

Our Panel Are:

Jonathan Barritt - Violist with the Coull String Quartet and viola professor at the Royal College of Music

Abbie Royston - Manager of the Musician's Answering Service

Dr. Kate Blackstone - Freelance musician and psychology researcher specialising in early career musician's lives

Tim Gill - Principal cellist of the London Sinfonietta, cellist for the Fidelio Trio and cello professor at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama


“Getting a non-musical job after graduating means you're giving up on a career in music.”

Kate: This is a really common misconception, and it’s a perspective that’s really limiting to us all as musicians. I’d actually say that a non-musical job could prevent you from giving up on a career in music. Why? If you have a steady income stream, it means you can put aside money worries, and focus on music-making without that distraction. It might mean that you can afford to turn down gigs that don’t appeal to you. On the other hand it might help you to save so that you can invest in a project you’d like to run, or buy a new instrument, more music, or extra reeds. You might not have gone into music for the money, but that doesn’t mean you don’t need it! Amongst the freelance musicians that I met for my research, many found that a job outside of music was a welcome ‘escape’ from musical pressures and an important source of social contact, so the benefits can be more than financial.

“Becoming a music teacher (either instrumental or subject) means you're a failed performer

Tim: “Those who can’t do, teach” is a phrase we’ve all heard at some point in our lives - it’s one of those axiomatic phrases that percolate into your subconscious until you can’t really remember who said it. But it’s hard to shake off the suspected validity of the comment. And yet it is so wrong in so many ways. The truth is that anyone involved in the music profession (particularly in this country) will do some teaching at some point in their career. Many (like me) will teach throughout their careers and interweave the dual activities of playing and teaching - the one constantly benefiting the other. So why should we choose a starting point that tells us what we are doing (i.e. teaching) is somehow less worthwhile? It really isn’t! Having done quite a bit of both, I can tell you that there have been many occasions when “playing” has been excruciatingly boring and not worthwhile, and many occasions when teaching has been extraordinarily uplifting and satisfying...

The key thing is what attitude you bring to both. We all go into music because we love it and want to “serve” it - playing and teaching (not to mention listening) are different ways of doing just that. 

So my best advice is to approach every way of engaging with music with the same enthusiasm and commitment. During your careers you’ll be called on to do many different things (some of them pretty weird and unexpected). Best thing is to ask yourself what you can bring to that activity rather than what you can get out of it. 

Moving back home after graduation means people will forget about me and I won't get any work.

Abbie: This very much depends on what you do both before and after you move. If you move away from where your current work is and stop accepting offers from there, then this statement will become true. However, where you live and where you work don’t have to be the same place, and it is possible to have more than one work base. If you do decide to move, then you need to make sure that everyone you currently work with knows that you would like to continue to be asked.

Whether or not you get work the place you move to also depends on what you do, and it is a good idea to make contact with orchestras local to your new base, either before or soon after you move. Being proactive can make a huge difference to how successful you are in both generating and maintaining your professional contacts. If you take control of this and work hard to both maintain your current contacts (so hopefully no one will notice you’ve moved!) as well as developing those in your home town you can in fact benefit from having two bases to work from.

“The more hours you practise, the better you are”

Jonathan: Practise time is a difficult one to nail down. It differs from one individual to the next. I think it is very easy to do too much work without a goal at the end i.e. filling in time to make yourself feel better! I think you have to have a strong sense of what you are doing and for what result.

Questions to ask yourself. Is this reparation work after the last night's concert? Is this general daily maintenance? Is it development work i.e. learning new techniques? Or is it a note learning binge for tomorrow? There are time when long hours are needed for deadlines/auditions etc but its still very important to have a sense of when you have done enough and you have stopped using your time ergonomically.

There was a wonderful violinist/teacher called Manny Hurwitz (quartet leader,1st leader of the English Chamber Orchestra and leader of the Melos Ensemble) who used to tell his pupils that if they didn't get done what was needed if 4 hours they weren't doing it correctly! Also you have to take into consideration the benefits of not practising! Occasionally a few days off can really benefit your muscles more.

I haven't had a lot of extra work recently. Did I do something wrong/ is it my fault?

Abbie: Unless you know about something specific, then the most likely answer is no. The amount of extra work you are offered with an orchestra will fluctuate, and many of the reasons for this are nothing to do with you. There may be auditions and trials running, programmes requiring smaller forces, a change of principal or management for example. Trials and programming you cannot do anything about, but a change of principal or management may mean you are not as well known to these people as you were previously. If this is the case do be proactive and introduce yourself, it may well be really helpful to them.

The most stable freelance career is one built on a foundation of a number of sources of work, so that if one source of work reduces for any reason it is not as detrimental as if you only work for a one or two orchestras. It is a good idea to keep this in mind and work to maintain a broad variety of freelance contacts throughout your career.

"Being a mature student will make it more difficult to work as a freelancer and lower my chances of getting an orchestral job.

Jonathan: I don't think being a mature student stops you getting work. Of course you have to play well for people to want to employ you but this is only the beginning. Then you have to know how to handle people in a section, know how not to rock the boat and still contribute a lot. In fact more mature students should be a little more experienced in this. On the other hand (this is not quite the question) I think it has become an ageist profession and that it is balanced more toward the younger players but this is a different argument!

“If I didn't get on any college schemes, I am not good enough to become an orchestral musician.”

Tim: One thing I learnt as a student is that different organisations will view you very differently. Just because you’re not considered good enough (by the powers that be) in your college doesn’t mean that you aren’t. And it doesn’t mean that other organisations won’t think you’re the best thing since sliced bread. And really...once you’re out of college nobody in the profession really cares how you did there. In all my time freelancing nobody has EVER asked me what orchestral projects I got on at college, or what degree I got or...anything at all about my education beyond maybe where did I go. They’re interested in two things - how you play, and how you play with other people.

The college schemes are there to help you, not to give you a benchmark about how good you are. It’s all about giving you experience and equipping you better for the profession. And if you’re not getting on any schemes, then take it up with your college - and look at moving somewhere you will get the experience you want. You’re paying for your education - you can call the shots!

The way the profession works is like a snowball. You get one bit of work - might be playing the Messiah in Eckington village hall - and someone who plays in one of the orchestras gets to meet you and passes your name on - and before you know it you’re being invited into the LSO! It’s all quite haphazard. Just look after your playing and stay confident and optimistic- and wait for that snowball to gather momentum!

“Taking a break from music means it’s impossible to return.”

Kate: I think it’s really important to define what’s meant by ‘taking a break.’ If we’re talking about taking a full-time, non-musical job, there’s no question that it will take a lot of discipline and organisation to stay in shape. It would also probably mean accepting a pay cut once you decide that the break is over, unless you’re headed straight into a full-time salaried contract, since freelancing often relies on the gradual building up of work. Someone once told me not to take a job that pays too much after graduating, because I’d get used to the money and never go back to playing. I’m not sure how much I buy into that, but you can make up your own mind! What I am sure of is that taking a break from music doesn’t have to mean taking a break from being a musician: no matter what you do after graduating there are always ways to stay in touch with your love for music and it isn’t always in the most obvious ways!


So, what do you think? Are you feeling like you're feeling a little lighter? Feeling like the road to success isn't as black and white as myths would like to make out? If so let me know! I'd love to hear your stories, your opinions or any other subjects you'd like to see covered in the blog. Write a comment below or message me directly.

A huge thank you to Jonathan, Kate, Abbie and Tim for taking the time to bust these myths wide open.

Until next time,

Ruth x

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