Twelve Things I Wish I’d Known When I Graduated from Music School
I was recently invited to speak to the music department at my Alma Mater. For a portion of my presentation I gave them my version of a TED talk and told them the top twelve things I’d wish I’d known when I graduated from music school. Here’s the list of the twelve things I told them. When I put together the presentation, I started with a list of five things, but the list grew to include twelve. It could have been even longer, but twelve was plenty for these purposes!
- Find your musical passion and pursue it wholeheartedly.
Do you love Irish music? Is Bluegrass your thing? Perhaps you love writing your own songs and strumming your guitar, or you just want win that orchestra seat and keep it for forty years. Whatever your musical “thing” is, find it and pursue it. Don’t be afraid that something you love might be too niche. Oftentimes, finding your niche and doing everything you can to be the best at it you can possibly be will help you build a career you love.
- Find a mentor and ask for advice unashamedly.
I cannot emphasize enough the importance of finding people who will help you as you attempt to make a career playing music. Find a musician you respect who is ten, twenty, fifty years ahead of you in your field. Sometimes this happens naturally, which is probably the best way, but you can also be proactive and seek these people out. Find someone you respect who has done what you want to do, see if you can buy them a cup of coffee and then ask them your burning career questions. You’ll be surprised how open and willing people are to share their knowledge to those just starting out.
- Diversify your music-adjacent skillset.
Realize that being a professional musician is about far more than just playing music. Most musicians teach as well as perform and complete all their own admin tasks. Take a business class and learn how to use social media, write contracts and inquiry letters, start making and editing simple YouTube videos, and learn a little bit about all the ways you should promote yourself.
It must be said though, that you need to know your limits. Don’t attempt to build your own website if you know nothing about it and haven’t done the research to find an intuitive web-building host. Figure out what is not worth your time and find someone to do it for a reasonable price. For example, I didn’t build my own website but I’ve learned how to maintain it. When it’s due for an entire upgrade/overhaul I’ll hire someone to do that and then continue with month-to-month maintenance myself.
When it comes to teaching, ask for advice from quality teachers, apply it and learn how to teach music on your specific instrument. Just because your university professor taught a certain way does not mean that that is the only, or the best, way to teach in your field. Teaching children versus adults can be very different, and the same goes for various abilities as well as ages. You can learn to teach without having a degree in music education.
- Become an organized person…even if you’re not.
That’s right, admit it if you are disorganized…many people are and that’s totally okay. But there are certain things you need to learn to function, and thankfully becoming an organized person is something you can learn if it is not in your nature! Go buy some file folders and label them with basic things such as taxes, expenses, student information and go from there. Do your best to reply to emails promptly and set reminders to follow up with people. Many times, being reliable will get you more work than being the absolute best on your instrument. If you answer the phone when people call, or call them back in a timely fashion, you’ll get the work more than those who don’t respond or take a long time to get back to a client.
It’s also important to learn how to put together your own musical programs. You will be asked to play in different situations and settings. The people in those places that might not be interested in the kind of music you are. Learn some pop tunes, buy a book of oldies for nursing home programs, learn how to make thoughtful selections that equal an hour of music for background gigs that you can pull out at a moment’s notice.
- Learn some people skills, if you don’t possess them naturally.
Learn how to old conversations with strangers and how to talk about your job and ask others about their work. First impressions matter. If you roll up a gig and don’t talk much or engage with the person booking you they probably won’t book you again. Same goes for virtual communication—be friendly, be polite, be professional and it will pay off.
If you truly so introverted that you wish you never had to speak to a stranger ever again, or even leave the house, go learn some skills from your extrovert friends. You don’t have to like it, but observe how they act and react to people and try to copy them. It might not seem true to who you are as a person, but when working many people have to put on a positive front and extroversion falls into the same category! Not all nurses want to be nice to their patients all the time, but they still have to be. Learn some extroverted qualities and put them to good use in your work life!
- Don’t undervalue your skills.
Learn how to properly charge for the services you offer. Don’t overprice or underprice yourself. Ask for what you need and you’d be surprised how often people are willing to pay. But if people try and get you to charge less, it’s okay to turn down the gig. Some gigs just aren’t worth your time.
On the other hand, sometimes you will do things for free or for less. You just have to weigh the value in what you are offering for a discount. Is the show you are offering to do for a massive discount or free serving a population you want to honor or reach? For example, I play senior shows for less than I play weddings. Same goes for shows and church events that serve my own community.
- Grants are your best friend.
Many places have grant programs in place that anyone can apply for. Many have no age limits or requirements so most anyone can apply. I got my first grant at 19 and public and institutional funding have enabled me to do a lot of things that have helped my career. Find people who have received grants and ask them where they got them from. Most of the time you have to be very proactive to find the funding and then write a proposal that fits both within your interests and skill set and whatever the funding organization is looking for. A little work can go a long way.
- Never be too proud to take that job to pay the bills.
Sometimes you just need a day job. Get one if you need it. Don’t be ashamed to have to work part time doing something that’s “not your passion” in order to be able to pay your rent and live comfortably. Do your best not to accrue any debt that isn’t necessary (such as college loans or a mortgage).
- You will be rejected.
You must come to terms with the fact that not everyone is going to love your music. It’s totally normal. It doesn’t negate what you are doing with your life. Rejection is part of any career, so don’t let it get you down when it comes. You are not a bad musician because people reject you. Take every rejection with a grain of salt, evaluate if their critiques (when they are helpfully given) to see if have any validity and then move on. They might have some helpful ideas of things to change or tweak in your music, but if the criticism or rejection isn’t given in a kind and helpful way, just move on and forget about it.
- “Do something you love and you’ll never work a day in your life” is a big fat lie.
You won’t always love every gig and every aspect of your job. Don’t be disappointed when your work is work. Sometimes you just gotta wake up and make the donuts.
- Make space in your life to practice and be creative even when you “have no time.”
You must practice and continue to develop your skills no matter what stage you are at. Aim to at least play SOMETHING on your instrument every day even if you don’t have an hour to put in. Cut out some scrolling or streaming time to make space for a tune or two. I guarantee once you start playing you will play longer than you think you can manage.
- Find ways to enjoy music that make you no money.
Volunteer in your community or at your church, if you have one. It’s important to give back and pour into people without asking anything in return.
If music starts feeling like a chore, my best advice is to take up a new instrument just for fun. I play the fiddle for fun. I will never make any money with it and never expect to use it in my career and that is precisely why it is so very fun. So go and take up the ukulele or the banjo, the autoharp or the tin whistle, and make music for the sake of making music!
There you go. Is there anything you’d add to the list of things you wished you’d known when you began your artist career? Tell me in the comments below!