Tips and Likelyhood of me becoming a musician?

November 6, 2014 at 08:46 PM · Hi, so, I'm a violinist that's been playing the violin since I was 4. I decided recently that I'd like to become a professional violinist, considering the risks. I have currently received my RCM 8 an year ago, but I am to be said to have the playing level of an RCM 10 player. I have been in 4 different ensembles since my 4rth grade, involving two chambre orchestras and 2 symphonies. I have recently started practicing really often and received lessons. I am also playing at a school that offers a strings program, enabling the fact I can practice my techniques more often in school now. Are there any tips I can receive? Is there a possibility of me becoming a successful musician? I do plan to get my ARCT soon. Thank you, for taking your time to read and comment!

Replies (77)

November 6, 2014 at 10:27 PM · This is like asking, "Can I become a scientist?"

The answer to "can I become X" is never "yes" or "no", but "how much effort will it take to get there" and "how long will it take" and "where will you be on the echelon of success for that profession".

You can be whatever you want to be. Success is a long road that depends not just on talent and achievement but also on networking, hard work, and serendipity.

November 6, 2014 at 10:41 PM · Hi Eric,

Forgive me I'm not familiar with your examination systems, and anyway it's almost impossible to gauge without knowing what music you are playing and how you play them.

But just to lay out the possibilities, the spectrum of "becoming a musician" is really wide. Let's just consider first it's the performing full time musician route, some people want to do competitions and get a management to play recitals and concertos, some want a tenured orchestra job, some want to form a chamber ensemble, and I would say because there's an over abundance of really talented young musicians now, if you're not already doing small competitions and summer festivals, you have a lot of catch up to do and life is going to be difficult ahead. If you haven't started your Kreuzter etudes, solo Bach, and major concertos like Bruch yet, I would be worried...

Many musicians also teach, some in their private studio and maybe freelancing gigs on the side. Some get by really comfortably just doing wedding gigs and some with a big studio of students.

I also know friends who for example is a freelance musician but during the day works at Google. Others similarly have a day job and play music on the side for fun and continue to have lessons privately and other day jobs, they find what they do fulfilling.

I think only you yourself know what is your passion. I would talk to all kinds of musicians around you and ask them about their lives. If I'm in high school, I would already be thinking about different festivals and master classes I can play in to meet teachers that I'm interested studying with at conservatories or universities.

November 7, 2014 at 04:04 PM · Congrats on making it as far as you have through the RCM program!

I suppose, you need to ask yourself 'what kind' of a professional violinist you want to be.




Those are all professionals, distinct, yet may overlap at times, so it's not 'just' as straightforward as saying 'professional violinist'.

Where you planning on going on to University - music degree?

November 7, 2014 at 04:24 PM · Read the book "Beyond Talent" by Angela Meyers Beeching.

November 8, 2014 at 09:17 PM · Thank you for all the help! I plan to become an orchestral violinist. Although I want to aim to become a soloist, I wish to aim a bit lower first, and then move on to as far as I can go.

My aim is to go to either McGill University or the University of Toronto for a master's degree in music.

And do suggest me some pieces I should do if I am to become more successful as a musician? Pieces I should practice?

November 9, 2014 at 12:14 AM · Always have an answer to "Oh you're a violinist? Play something!"

On a practical basis, it's useful to know something that sounds reasonable when unaccompanied, for three occasions -- for a wedding, for a funeral, and for random watcher that wants to be entertained and impressed -- and to be able to play all three of those things cold with no practice, from memory, at any point in time.

(I think the three most common answers to those needs are the Wedding March, Massenet's Meditation from Thais, and Monti's Czardas.)

November 9, 2014 at 06:50 AM · Most orchestral violinists in their pre-college high school years would be doing the usual solo Bach, etudes, Paganini caprices, concerto like Mozart 3/4/5, Mendelssohn, Vieuxtemps, etc, sonatas and so on. Basically your audition repertoire...

November 9, 2014 at 02:13 PM · I haven't heard much about the program at the U of T, but I know a few musicians who have been to McGill.

One suggestion is that you find a teacher who has attended McGill...and book an appointment with them. Ask them these questions, see what words of wisdom they have for you.

You could also call up the music department, and ask if you could talk to someone there. Even if they graduated elsewhere, they should still be able to answer your questions.

Now is a good time to ask those questions too, so you'll have a game plan already set for when your graduate high school.

November 9, 2014 at 03:04 PM · I remember an actor saying that she would have people come up to her and say, "I want to be an actor!"

Her reply was, "You are crazy, don't do it" - figuring they would either actually give up the idea if they weren't 100% committed and that if they were really determined they would ignore this advice and do it anyway.

So, I say to you, are you crazy? Don't do it!

November 9, 2014 at 06:50 PM · "I plan to become an orchestral violinist. Although I want to aim to become a soloist, I wish to aim a bit lower first..."

Yeah, sure. Because becoming a successful orchestral player is SO easy...

November 9, 2014 at 07:35 PM · You can be sarcastic...or you could take this as an opportunity to explain to a young student/enthusiast why being an orchestral violinist is/isn't easier than being a soloist.

Lol...just sayin'...

November 10, 2014 at 03:03 PM · The problem OP is that virtually every violinist you talk to will funnel you towards a handful of options: soloist, orchestra, chamber or teacher. This is a mindset that modern violinists need to get out of. Some of us started the classical route but ended up making a career where regular violinists can't or won't go.

Modern violin training has virtually no training in playing by ear, improvisation, alternative styles or even composition/arranging. Include these skills and you have more doors open to you.

But beware, it's always a tough career. If you are not successful obviously you are financially up the creek but if you are successful then you will be constantly away from your loved ones as either you will be touring or working evenings and weekends. If you are young and single it can be an adventure but as soon as you have a family success becomes a sacrifice.

November 10, 2014 at 05:58 PM · What does your teacher think? Your teacher is most likely the person who is the most familiar with your playing and therefore in the best position to answer this. Have you asked them?

November 11, 2014 at 03:51 AM · It's hard to tell from your post, but if you only just started taking lessons, then I am sorry to say that the odds of your becoming a successful professional violinist in an orchestra are rather low, and the odds of becoming a soloist are nonexistent. If I misread your post and you have been receiving private lessons from a qualified instructor for years, then the best person to ask is your teacher *if* your teacher is an active performer or is very familiar with the requirements of performance. I am aware of some violin teachers who tell every student with modest talent that they should study music at a conservatory or university and become a professional, and that is just not fair to the students or good advice in general.

Generally, the better qualified the teacher (conservatory degree? professional performing experience? university professor?) the better the advice will be.

If you want to get a good idea of the level required for admission into a good undergraduate music performance program, go to Youtube and look up Juilliard Prep (or "Pre-college") senior recitals. These are high school seniors, and not all of them will get into Juilliard proper. If you want to get a good idea of what the level is for aspiring soloists, look up videos from the recent Menuhin competition, junior division.

It's possible that your aspirations are entirely realistic--I can't say without hearing you play--but please be aware that as competitive as conservatory admissions can be, professional orchestra auditions are exponentially more competitive. It is a remarkably unpleasant way to get a job, and I thank God every day that that part of my life is behind me.

There are, of course, other paths. Lindsey Stirling has made a very successful career out of modest ability on the violin combined with dance experience, an enormous amount of creativity, and marketing genius.

November 11, 2014 at 04:55 AM · In his initial post. ..Eric states he has been playing since he was 4 years old. He completed his Grade 8 RCM and has been told he plays at a Grade 10 RCM level. He has also played in various enembles, etc. How is that unclear?

November 12, 2014 at 04:00 AM · There's a reason why conservatory admissions cannot be done based on resumes and recommendations but instead require an audition. Resumes and recommendations are meaningless. I've seen some impressive resumes from people who played dreadful auditions.

Years playing does not necessarily imply a certain level. I can show you students with ten years of lessons who are mediocre at best, and other students with three or four years of study who show great promise.

I am not familiar with the level of rigor that RCM judging implies, but I know from years of sending students to Solo & Ensemble festivals that often a judge offers high words of praise for a performance that, granted, is good for a student, but is not at a pre-professional level. Grade inflation exists in music, too.

I don't understand what is unclear about needing to hear someone play before offering an intelligent assessment of his/her chance at a future professional career.

November 12, 2014 at 04:58 AM · Of course one would need to hear someone play first...before providing a meaningful critique or further recommendation. That wasn't remotely unclear.

November 13, 2014 at 03:21 AM · Thank you for your replies, they're really helping me in my preparation. Yes, I have, in fact, already seen the Menuhin competition take place, both the senior and junior division. I cannot compare however, considering my single opinion could be either underestimating my skills or overestimating them. I am the player, not the observer. However, I have played the same pieces as the junior division, such as the Passacaglia of Johann Halvoreson. (Might have spelt that incorrectly, my apologies)

My previous teacher told me I was capable of becoming a violinist (An year ago), but I wasn't thinking of that career at the time. I have not asked my new teacher yet, I shall do so soon when I believe I have the privilege.

November 13, 2014 at 05:49 AM · You should be able to look at another player as well as your own playing and arrive at a reasonably accurate judgment of capability. If not, it is an analytical skill that you absolutely want to develop.

November 13, 2014 at 10:31 PM · I completely agree with you, that is still one ability I must learn quickly.

November 16, 2014 at 06:11 PM · Just one more observation about a career in music:

Keep in mind that the industry is not static--the nature of employment keeps changing.

So for example, for two students of equal talent and level, one graduating in 1970 and one in 2020 would be facing vastly different conditions. Even for "alternative" modes: strings used to be used in country music decades ago, but the market for them in the Nashville recording industry has faded away. Broadway shows used to employ legions of string players, now replaced by recordings and synthesizers. Private teaching has become tougher as school programs decline and extremely qualified conservatory graduates move into areas outside large cities and compete in smaller arenas for a limited number of students. College jobs have disappeared with the funding crisis in higher ed, not to mention the lack of feeder programs in k-12.

The traditional employment "box" of orchestras, chamber music, and teaching should be the primary focus, because let's face it: most people aren't going to be a Lindsey Sterling, or don't want to improvise or be in rock bands. That's not what attracts most people to classical string playing in the first place. It would be like telling an aspiring rock guitarist to start learning to love opera just to make a living.

So regardless of a young person's talent or passion, it's very difficult to predict the market for musicians far in the future. It doesn't seem especially bright, though.

November 17, 2014 at 05:32 AM · The availability of private teaching very much depends on where you live. Where I am, the school string programs are very strong, and there are not enough qualified private teachers to take care of all the students who want private lessons.

November 17, 2014 at 06:26 AM · Lucky you...

November 17, 2014 at 03:23 PM · The short answer is that it's incredibly difficult for anyone to be professional musician. Those who are crazy enough to do it anyway will do it no matter what anyone says to deter them. Those who aren't will do something else and secretly always wonder if they'd be happier as musicians. So you're damned if you do, and damned if you don't. Cheerio! ;)

November 17, 2014 at 03:48 PM · Many great comments already.

The real question is not if one can become musician, but if one can make a decent living and still be happy by doing so.

Being an amateur, I enjoy music making way more than when I was studying and hoping to become a pro. Now it is all the good stuff with no stress.

If you decide to become a paid musician, the biggest challenge after making money is to save your bliss from fading.

There are only a few professionals I played with who still share the joy and enthusiasm of us amateurs.

None of my school mates from music school wanted to play music with me. For them, music does not bring joy anymore. Good luck!

November 18, 2014 at 07:46 AM · Oh come now. One cannot lump all professional musicians under this jaded, less-than-enthusiastic type. There will always be those sour apples whom no matter what, playing music is tedious. However, the majority of musicians I have ever played with and mind you, this is 30 years of playing in all types of venues, are all still in love with performing and such.

You can make the exact same comparison towards amateurs, who "like" playing but could really care less about polishing a piece and are more focused on their chosen careers/family/etc... I've not seen any amateurs in an orchestra or chamber setting that enjoys playing the piece on their stands...

This generalization isn't fair, nor is claiming just because a musician gets paid they lose any love or desire to make music.

There is one truth to the post as well as others. You CAN be a musician, but what kind is going to be up to you. I've known Violinists whom transferred out of the conservatory, went to some random university and are now touring with bands and rappers. I've known a couple that got their BM in Violin Performance, did not do anything and instead became conductors. There are those that trained for 20 years as pure classical musicians, then left school and said F it and left music altogether. It's entirely up to the individual just how committed they are early on. College is helpful in deciding which route one wants to take, especially if you go to any one of the major conservatories/music schools. Nobody can really tell another yes or no as to whether they can be a musician.

November 18, 2014 at 08:26 PM · "Did not do anything and became conductors," I love this. I think I've played under a few of those.

I have to say that yes, in many cases it is possible to tell someone that they will NOT be a professional musician, and frankly it is a kindness if not an ethical obligation to do so. Just in the past year, I've had to have that conversation with two of my private students, who (unbeknownst to me) were nursing ambitions to do what I do. It's very hard to look someone in the eye and say, "You will not get into Oberlin," but it is sometimes necessary. It is morally wrong to encourage a student to audition (or make prescreens) for a school which he/she has absolutely NO chance of getting into, and it is morally wrong to encourage a student to take on tens of thousands of dollars in debt in pursuit of a course of study that has no possibility of a job at the end of it.

Are there borderline cases, sure. I was one, and I made it. But the borderline student must, absolutely must, have the self-confidence and inner drive to keep going in spite of discouragement from people like me, and the work ethic and talent to catch up with his or her peers. And a high school senior (not referring to the OP here) who is playing Accolay or Bach a minor or DeBeriot 9 is hopelessly far behind.

November 18, 2014 at 08:37 PM · I think the problem for musicians is that the public has such a polarized view of what we do. Either we're in the throes of near-orgasmic creative bliss all day or we're drunk, our children are barefoot and we're six months behind on the rent. It can be hard to convince people that sometimes it's boring to be a musician, and there are tedious tasks like in any other job. Sometimes it really is just a job, and I don't think many students expect or realize that going into it.

Mary Ellen, I completely understand what you're saying. I struggle with that one sometimes. There is an ethical obligation to inform a student if you know good and well they have no chance of winning an audition, and I have done so, unpleasant as it is. What's more difficult is when the case is not so clear cut. I've sent kids to auditions when I thought they were qualified, but probably on the weaker end of the spectrum, and seen them win them, so I'm careful to walk a fine line between realism and optimism. I'm sure many fine players have been told they'd never amount to anything.

November 19, 2014 at 06:42 PM · The average major orchestra, when they have, let's say one section string opening, will probably have many hundreds of applications for the position. Pick several hundred conservatory students and ask yourself if you are better than 99% of them.

November 19, 2014 at 06:42 PM ·

November 19, 2014 at 08:18 PM · I missed that Eric wants to be a classical soloist. Let me just be real with you, Eric: that isn't going to happen. If that option were on the table for you, you would know about it already and you would probably be doing it by now. Orchestra jobs are hardly any better. It is *extremely* difficult to get a full-time orchestra job.

Now, there are other ways to be a musician, and that's what I meant when I said that those who are crazy enough to do it, will. But being a classical soloist isn't something you work your way up to through an orchestra job. It's more like a life-long career track that begins with winning concerto competitions when you're very young.

November 19, 2014 at 10:11 PM · For what it's worth, I don't tell the borderline cases that they can't make it. I tell them that the odds are low and that they need to have a Plan B. And I lay out exactly what the process is to get a job, and what kinds of jobs there are at the different levels. It is possible to piece together a living with freeway philharmonic gigs and private students, but such a living is far more enjoyable at 25 than at 45.

November 20, 2014 at 01:26 AM · That sounds perfectly reasonable. I haven't been teaching long enough to have students who want to become professionals. I was referring to auditions for things like youth orchestras, summer camps, or even more prestigious youth programs like the side-by-side with the full-time orchestra in town. I have had to tell kids they weren't ready for those auditions, even when other teachers said they were. Even a relatively low-investment audition like that is still an investment of time, energy, and money, not to mention ego. It's not right to send kids where they don't belong in any case, but if I had a student who wanted to major in music, my standards for recommending that path would be much higher, like yours.

November 20, 2014 at 02:07 AM · I've also met some number of folks who consider themselves professionals even though they hold down some kind of day job, usually something that's a 20 or 30-hour-a-week type job. Sometimes that will be working at a violin shop or other music store, or a recording studio, or arts administration, or something else music-related; sometimes it's a retail or admin assistant job or the like. That job is what gives them health insurance and a steady baseline income, and then the rest comes from freelancing and teaching. But they work very, very hard -- again, probably something that looks better at 25 than at 45.

November 22, 2014 at 04:37 PM · Thank you for all your observations! These really help me and my thinking. All your thoughts are greatly appreciated. I have, indeed, created a Plan B already, considering my parents have been endlessly telling me to create one in case I change my mind or end up unable to find a job as a musician. Is there anybody that would like to share their experience as a musician in here? Any sort of musician?

-Yes, I do realize that becoming a soloist is almost near impossible, but I'm still going to try as hard as I can to see how close I can get to such a peak.

November 22, 2014 at 04:54 PM · I don't know if anyone commented this, since I didn't read all the comments, but if you want to be a soloist, you can try competing in major competition. It gets your name out there.

November 22, 2014 at 05:20 PM · Just remember that even if you want to get a non-soloist job, such as in an orchestra (even a 3rd-tier orchestra such as Oregon, San Diego, Phoenix, Kansas City, etc,), or teach at a decent university, or play with a quartet, you still have to play like a soloist. The question is whether those jobs will be available to begin with.

Note this article from Nov. 22:®ion=top-news&WT.nav=top-news

November 23, 2014 at 05:13 AM · With all due respect, if becoming a soloist were even remotely possible in your future, you would already be well down that track, placing well in the junior division of international competitions.

I have been playing professionally for nearly thirty years, the past 25 as principal second violin of the San Antonio Symphony. I also teach as an adjunct at a university as well as privately, and play many gigs on the side. San Antonio is a fulltime orchestra with a very high artistic standard, but salaries have been historically subpar for a variety of reasons not worth going into here.

Becoming a soloist was never an ambition of mine, but I have actually soloed with orchestras of various levels on several occasions. There are opportunities for those who know how to seek them out.

I had a plan B; I was double degree at Oberlin with my other degree being math. Aside from a very occasional tutoring gig as a favor to a friend, I have not used my math degree. It did come in handy psychologically the year the SAS was in bankruptcy with a canceled season. For the first half of that year, I had no idea if the SAS would ever come back. For family reasons (mainly my husband's job and investment in his pension), taking auditions and moving to another city was no longer a possibility. So I went back to school to take classes to get certified to teach high school math. I did everything required except student teach--by that point, the symphony was back and with a sigh of relief I shelved any future plans to teach math.

So my life history as a professional musician is full of artistic satisfaction and financial setbacks. And while I have a great life, the process of getting here (the audition circuit) was brutal. I would never advise my children to follow in my footsteps.

November 23, 2014 at 04:02 PM · I suspect that for the many high schoolers who come to to ask if they can become soloists, the answer is: "If you have to ask, the answer is no."

RCM 8 is, I think, Accolay concerto level? And you've been playing since age 4? You need a better teacher, more practice time, or both. Your advancement has been very slow, especially for someone with the ambition to play professionally.

November 23, 2014 at 05:43 PM · Well, he does say that he has been told he plays at RCM Level 10, which I believe might be Bruch? Not sure; we don't do those down here. But your basic point is correct. Anyway, I am naturally skeptical about second-hand reports of how well someone plays; I've heard some of these students after hearing the second-hand praise, and reality did not match up with expectation. Not to say that the OP's self assessment is correct or incorrect. I have no idea.

Maybe there should be a FAQ for students..."Q: Can I become a soloist? A: If you have to ask, the answer is no." And, "Q: Can I play (insert ambitious piece here)? A: Ask your teacher." I find myself wondering about students who come here to ask if they can play a certain piece...if they have already asked their teacher, been told "no," and are hoping for a different answer here.

November 24, 2014 at 12:38 AM · Plenty of people make a living in music that's predominantly teaching rather than performing. The playing standard expected of people going into music education is considerably lower. I suspect that many middle-school and high-school string teachers are routinely outplayed by their students, and in a lot of retail-storefront types of community music schools, you'll find the teachers are pretty marginal players.

Similarly, most of the kids that you'll see winning local competitions at the high school level will decide not to go onto careers in music, significantly culling the pool of potential professional players. Unfortunately a lot of them will never touch the violin again after high school or college, but the ones who keep playing as amateurs will fill out the front stands of community orchestras and in some cities will be found filling out the freelancer ranks as well.

November 24, 2014 at 01:31 AM · Here is the link to the RCM syllabus.

I always have the perception in the music world "Perfect is not good enough". I wonder whether it is true or not.

November 24, 2014 at 03:17 AM · Your path is your own to choose. Become the finest violinist you can be and enjoy the process. :-)

November 24, 2014 at 05:35 PM · The short answer, Victor, is yes. It is true.

"If you have to ask, the answer is no" is exactly right when it comes to being a soloist. There's really no point in telling people that anything is possible, because it just isn't. It's not even like pro sports, where (as far as I understand), you can show great promise in high school, get an athletic scholarship to college and then get drafted to a pro team based on your performance there. No one gets "discovered" as a soloist in college. If you're still asking about it by high school, it's not in your future. It's not even just a matter of how you play, either. It's also about moving through the system.

November 25, 2014 at 12:46 AM · My answer is: yes. You have chances of becoming a professional. Don't listen to the people who say you can't do it. They only make you feel bad.

November 25, 2014 at 02:40 AM · There's a difference between a professional and a soloist.

November 25, 2014 at 03:02 AM · It is morally wrong to say that anyone who wants to badly enough can be a professional. Even if you are not referring to soloists, it is morally wrong to blindly encourage someone on the internet with no knowledge of his or her actual playing level.

Yes, it is possible to say that some people cannot be professionals, unless you are redefining "professional" to mean anyone who has ever gotten a check on one occasion for playing the violin. There are more music graduates EVERY YEAR in the US than there are jobs in professional orchestras. Not openings. Jobs. That includes jobs like mine, which will likely not be open for another 15 to 20 years.

The standard of playing in conservatories is so high that there is a vast oversupply of skilled string players. A student who is playing Accolay as a senior in high school cannot simply wish hard enough and work hard enough. He will never catch up.

I'm sure someone will now point to an exception that I don't know about, but one or two success stories out of thousands of disappointed dreamers does not negate the basic point that it is possible to be too far behind as a teenager ever to catch up to be competitive on a professional level. Especially if the young person has been playing since age 4 or 5 and has only reached Accolay level--that is a student who is either not a hard worker, has little to no natural ability, or has not had good teachers. The first two are fatal flaws and the last category relies on a near miraculous meeting up of student with magic teacher.

Pursuing violin study in college is expensive and time-consuming. Blindly encouraging someone to go tens of thousands of dollars in debt in pursuit of a career that will never happen is morally, ethically wrong.

The most honest thing to say to a stranger on the internet is to suggest asking his teacher or other professional well acquainted with his playing, to assess his chances. But given some basic information about playing level, it is also possible to draw the conclusion that a professional career is likely not in someone's future.

"Follow your dream" is horrendous advice if it isn't tempered with "after an honest assessment of your skills and aptitudes."

November 25, 2014 at 03:38 AM · I was thinking about this advice in the broader context of a university education, and I am obliged to point out that we turn out countless (non-music) college graduates who may have *no* genuinely useful skills after going into vast debt. Arguably, someone who studies music performance or music education at the university level graduates with an immediately marketable skill. Yes, it might not pay a lot. Yes, it might not be an entirely reliable income. But what percentage of college graduates these days leave school with high-paying steady jobs?

If you're making a decision between a marginal career in music and going into a field with high income potential and strong job-market demand, then by all means the latter opportunity is likely a better choice -- enjoy your solidly upper-middle-class professional life and amateur music-making opportunities.

But if you're making a decision between a marginal career in music, and having no other notion of what you're going to do with your life? There may be a strong argument for using the skills that you have.

November 25, 2014 at 04:25 AM · Well said, Mary Ellen. I agree. What I meant was that it may be possible that a high schooler asking about being a musician on the Internet could have a non-traditional career, although I agree that the odds are pretty slim given the specifics. But I can say without any other information whatsoever that being a soloist is not going to happen.

Lydia, I understand the point you're making, but a marketable skill is only useful if you also have the skill, know-how and entrepreneurial flair to market yourself and create your own work. That's a talent in its own right, and one that not every musician has.

November 25, 2014 at 05:17 AM · The level of playing required even to aspire to a marginal career in professional music is very high.

Now if someone loves teaching and wants to make a career as a Suzuki teacher, the playing requirements are lower. If someone loves directing orchestras or working with groups of kids and wants to make a career as a classroom orchestra teacher, the playing requirements are much lower--and this can be a wonderful career for the right people--not at all second best, just different, and requiring other skills at a very high level.

But for a performance career, even a marginal one, I stand by my remarks. Even the freeway philharmonic gigs can be hard to get if you're in a competitive market, which is just about all of them.

Of course, someone with a day job can enjoy the occasional gig and collect a nice sum of extra money. But this extra money is only nice if it's on top of a regular paycheck. The people who are gigging, subbing, and teaching to pay for rent, food, gas and utilities--not to mention large payments on a student loan and/or instrument loan--these are the marginal professionals and they have to play very well indeed to scratch successfully for a living.

November 25, 2014 at 05:57 AM · What percentage of performers actually derive the majority of their income from performing rather than teaching? Indeed, how many soloists actually derive the majority of their income, especially in their later years, from a conservatory teaching position, rather than performing fees? And even for those whose income-majority is from performing, what percentage is nevertheless dependent on the extra income from teaching to support their lifestyle?

Perhaps more to the point for the OP, what is the actual income difference between the marginally-competent professional (the one that completes their education, however long it lasts, at say the Bruch concerto level or below) who relies primarily on teaching for an income and supplements that with gigs, and a very highly-competent professional who lands a full-time orchestra job in a second or third-tier city?

A quick Google search, for instance, turns up that a typical San Antonio Symphony section violinist earns a salary of $29,000/year. That suggests that someone with a full-time public-school music education job might very well earn a similar baseline salary. (There would likely be a delta in their private-teaching fees as well, but this will be limited by what the market can bear, too.)

In other words, the data might suggest that the economic penalty for being a marginal violinist, versus being a vastly better but not world-class player, might be relatively small. In some ways, this reduces the risk of the choice for marginal-level players, because however much they do or don't improve as performers may have very little bearing on future income. (On reflection, this is kind of a depressing thought.)

November 25, 2014 at 06:55 AM · I think you and I are not meaning the same things when we use the same words. By definition, a "performer" is someone who derives the majority of his/her income from performance. Someone who derives most of his/her income from teaching is a "teacher." You can use the phrase "professional musician" to describe either, but generally when young posters ask about future careers as a professional, they mean as a performer.

Someone completing his musical education at the level of the Bruch concerto or below is not even remotely, let alone marginally, competent at a professional level. Such a player may, with the right personality and in the right place, make a satisfying life of teaching and maybe gigging at weddings, but Bruch is not even adequate for a high school senior to get into one of the top music schools.

I have said nothing about income. Lindsey Sterling's career alone makes it clear that there is much more to someone's tax return than how well she plays. Of course a classroom teacher is going to be paid as much or more than a section player in a third-tier orchestra, with better benefits and more job security to boot. The year the SA Symphony was in bankruptcy with a canceled season, I was acutely aware of the irony involved in my teaching university music education majors.

It is possible for a marginal (by which I mean someone who is capable of playing Tchaikovsky concerto and Don Juan, but perhaps not quite good enough to win a fulltime job) player to approach the level of a smaller orchestra income by dedicated teaching, freeway philharmonic gigs, and weddings. Someone with marketing acumen can focus on weddings and exceed that amount by quite a bit, I'm sure. The best New York freelancers do extremely well--but of course, they are not marginal players. The advantage of playing in a smaller orchestra versus teaching and gigging has more to do with job satisfaction, stability, and sick leave--if I'm too sick to play a wedding, so sad too bad, but if I'm too sick to play a SAS concert, I still get paid.

By the way, your SA Symphony income information is incorrect. Base pay for a section player this season is $31,175. That is the *minimum*. Most people have seniority tacked onto it, and many players have also had opportunities this season to play additional weeks not in the contract. I would expect a "typical" SAS section violinist to make closer to $34K this year.

Approximately 1/3 of my annual income is derived from teaching. This is not because I make so little from performing--I am not a section player, nor is the SAS my only source of performance income, so it adds up--but because I teach a LOT. I am also, as principal second, on the audition committee for every SAS string opening we have. You would not believe how well one must play just to be competitive for a job in San Antonio. This is what makes me so passionate about not encouraging false hope in weaker students. I know who is out there, I know what jobs are out there, and I am bitterly, personally aware of how precarious even a fulltime orchestra job can be.

November 25, 2014 at 07:39 AM · I am not disagreeing with you (or at least I think I'm not). I'm just musing on the income potential, especially vis a vis other things that someone can do with their life, and the future of marginal players who will never win salaried orchestral positions.

Part of the point I was trying to make was that the line between "performer" and "teacher" is very thin, and it may be as much a matter of self-definition as it is income division. Moreover, the state of the profession seems to be that even highly accomplished players struggle to make a decent living -- which means that in the end they might not make significantly more than the marginal players. This has the consequence of not necessarily discouraging marginal players from musical careers even if they know a performing career is a long shot.

Marginal players aren't going to conservatories. Marginal players will attend their state university, or some other local school, and quite possibly get music education degrees rather than performance degrees. My point was that their lives might not turn out to be substantially different than much more accomplished yet not world-class players, at least in terms of how much money they earn. That means that the economic penalty for failure is relatively small. Of course, if someone is under the impression they're going to predominantly be a performer rather than a teacher, and then fails to achieve that goal, there is a high penalty in terms of potential career satisfaction (assuming this person doesn't like to teach, although given that most people end up teaching for at least supplemental income, practical anyone who wants to be a professional musician needs to find teaching at least bearable).

The music profession may have an interest in keeping out marginally-skilled members to reduce competition for jobs, and perhaps to make it less likely that future students will be taught by those with only basic skills. But tuition-hungry universities do not seem to have a similar interest, by and large guaranteeing that even minimally-skilled high schoolers get in *somewhere* and graduate with degrees, regardless of how competent they don't turn out to be in the end. (Indeed, we can probably all think of degreed musicians that we know, who failed to play the Vivaldi A minor with sufficient competence to qualify for Suzuki teacher training...)

(By the way, the San Antonio salary information came from this link: -- but the difference between $29k and $34k, on the general scale of looking at salary differences between professions and within the profession, is small.)

So back to the original poster... Eric, would you be happy teaching for a living?

November 25, 2014 at 07:53 AM · That is a very old link. (I was on that negotiating committee) By the way, the difference between 29K and 34K is about 15%, which is not insignificant. It's a question of scale.

Not all of my colleagues teach although a sizable majority certainly do.

I think our main point of disagreement is on what constitutes a "marginal" musician. I assure you that weeding out the marginal musicians does not reduce the level of competition in the slightest, because such musicians aren't competitive as performers in the first place.

My concern is the student who spends his senior year of high school taking auditions he has no chance of passing when his time could be better spent exploring other career options. Or worse, the student who majors in violin performance at a second-class school, going deeply into debt to do so, graduating with a performance degree and no job prospects.

I guess the embodiment of my worst fears for a weaker student is that Humans of New York feature on a cellist who had been taking auditions for 20 years and never won a job. At the time of the HONY picture, he was getting ready for an LA Phil audition. The comments were full of people cheering him on, telling him never to let go of his dream, that someday it would happen, etc., etc All I could think was, "Save your money; you are not going to win a job with the LA Phil."

My heart broke for him and for all those wasted years. Somewhere there was a teacher who failed to tell him exactly where he stood in the performance world, or else he simply did not listen. At any rate, just a year or two of taking auditions without ever advancing should spur someone to an honest self-assessment. Five years of taking auditions with no results is long past time to look into other fields.

Not all dreams are attainable, not even by wishing very very very hard.

November 25, 2014 at 01:39 PM · I've often felt that freelancing is actually a safer path in some ways than orchestral playing. I've considered this when taking auditions. $35k a year is well within reach for an aggressive freelancer in my area who loves to teach and has a flair for marketing. The advantages of a full-time orchestra job are mainly in the benefits, the connections and the relative security, but as Mary Ellen mentions, the "security" of an orchestra job is tenuous at best. If the orchestra folds, then you're right back in the same pool as everyone else, perhaps ahead in the performance department due to the orchestral experience but behind in the business skills that allow you to hustle for your own income. And Lydia is correct that the average bride is not going to distinguish between a violinist who can play Tchaikovsky concerto and one who can't. There's also the question of other styles, although in my experience, those pay far worse than classical music.

I think to really enjoy the life of a musician, even being a passionate musician isn't enough. You must also on some level enjoy, or at least be able to tolerate, the struggle of proving yourself and the value of what you do. I'm still in for the ride, for now, but I do grapple with the question, as I also have other skills and other options. Only time will tell, I suppose.

November 25, 2014 at 03:12 PM · Well, if it's wrong to encourage people on the Internet, then I'm a sinner.

November 25, 2014 at 03:40 PM · A lot of what is being written here is true of many fields of potential employment for young people. "Follow your dream" is fine counsel for a boy or girl who shows exceptional intelligence, maturity, discipline, and self-motivation, and who seems to be good at everything (s)he does. Such a child will likely already understand, however, that becoming the next Sally Ride or John Roberts is very unlikely, but it doesn't matter because they know they can be productive and even quite happy in a broad range of different careers. Obviously such a child is at a considerable advantage if there is money in the family to support a potentially long and circuitous educational pathway.

"Go to college" seems to be the baseline advice for most everyone else. But you do have to choose a major. Students and their parents generally are uncomfortable with the idea that college majors often have little bearing on career trajectories. To put a finer point on it, what's the best college major if you want to be a lawyer or a minister or a medical doctor or open your own brew pub -- I chose those as examples because I know individuals in those fields who have both BS *and PhD* degrees in chemistry. I teach university chemistry, and my advice to students is always to enjoy and dig into every course including "core" courses, because they will eventually benefit from that educational breadth.

What some students also don't seem to understand is that all college degrees are not created equal. If you go to a second-tier state university for your degree because your high school grades and SAT/ACT scores were not outstanding, just remember that the kids with SAT scores of 2300 who went to Brown or MIT are going to be your competition -- again -- four years later. So, if you find yourself among hundreds of biology majors at your university alone, then you really need to ask yourself how you're going to stand out in that crowd, not to mention how you might stack up against graduates from superior institutions.

I would have to say that even children of average aptitude will understand that the "follow your dream" advice rendered by someone they've never met can be graciously accepted as a benign, encouraging gesture but will have little practical value in their decision-making.

November 25, 2014 at 03:59 PM · "I would have to say that even children of average aptitude will understand that the "follow your dream" advice rendered by someone they've never met can be graciously accepted as a benign, encouraging gesture but will have little practical value in their decision-making"

Indeed - if we talk about dreams. But him becoming a professional might be not just a dream; it might be real too.

November 25, 2014 at 04:42 PM · I don't think most kids straight out of high school are really equipped to understand the gravity of student loan debt, much less choose a career that they'll find rewarding for the rest of their lives. It's hard to know if you'll find the struggles of any career worth the rewards when all you've done is sit behind a desk and do homework. Will the money and prestige of being a doctor or lawyer outweigh the long years of schooling, the grueling hours, the tedium of mountains of paperwork or the exhaustion of dealing with sick people day in and day out? Will the thrill of having your own business outweigh the uncertainty and the tax penalties that the government inexplicably puts on self-employed people and small business owners? Is the boredom of truck driving worth the mental freedom? Very few eighteen-year-olds really have the life experience to answer those questions for themselves. That's why I increasingly think our higher education system is morally bankrupt to saddle teenagers with tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt in order to launch them on a career path they barely understand. It would be much better to encourage them to actually work for five years after high school in the field of their choosing to get a sense for what it's about before signing their lives away.

November 25, 2014 at 04:56 PM · Presumably the three people who know the OP the best are himself, his parents (whom I am counting as a single entity) and his violin professor.

So Eric, please tell us: Who is your private violin professor, and what does (s)he think of your chances? And what do your parents think? And what do YOU honestly think?

Finally, Eric, what would be your first choice and second choice careers if you had never picked up the violin?

November 25, 2014 at 05:07 PM · "But if you're making a decision between a marginal career in music, and having no other notion of what you're going to do with your life? There may be a strong argument for using the skills that you have."

No, a young person should not have to chose between marginal skills and no other options. What they should be doing is investigating all of the other options available. And young people, by definition, have no idea of the vast universe of possibilities. This is why people go to college, and to liberal arts colleges specifically: to discover what else is out there besides what their parents do or what they see on tv, and what else they can excel at.

But to just say "I guess you better be a mediocre musician because you can't think of anything else"? That's a failure of imagination. Get another notion.

November 25, 2014 at 05:08 PM · "It would be much better to encourage them to actually work for five years after high school in the field of their choosing to get a sense for what it's about before signing their lives away."

I found that suggestion somewhat reminiscent of Mao Zedong's "reeducation program." The problem is that unemployment in that exact age group is very high. Remember that one of the reasons we force everyone to stay in school until they're 16 is precisely to keep them out of the labor market. What needs improving, in my view, is secondary education. And yes, I think that means throwing more money at it and getting rid of lowest-common-denominator "standards" initiatives.

Edit: Scott, I totally agree with you.

November 25, 2014 at 05:40 PM · Unemployment in that age range is high for a variety of reasons. Many of them don't have the maturity to hold down gainful employment, or they are distracted by other pursuits, like beer pong. Or they have no skills that employers are interested in, but part of that is a failing of how our system is set up. I'm not convinced your average undergraduate comes out with many more marketable skills than your average high school graduate. I found college to be much like an extended version of high school, but with way more partying. Even a field of study that would appear to be stable like the hard sciences doesn't guarantee much. I've read more than one article about the lamentable situation for post-docs in science nowadays.

Yes, a liberal arts college is a wonderful way to expand your mind, network with other promising young people, discover things you weren't exposed to in your own upbringing and so forth. But is that really worth $100,000 or more? I'm not so sure.

November 26, 2014 at 01:16 AM · I agree with Sarah. I'm also deeply dubious that all but a handful of students really discover their life's passion during their years at a liberal-arts college -- and then even fewer of them manage to turn that passion into gainful employment. Indeed, I can think of far too many friends and acquaintances who pursued PhDs at not-shabby schools -- vanishingly few of whom eventually found a job in their field.

The generic "business" major is now the most common major for college students -- young people are really trying to demonstrate some value in the job market. But it, too, tends not to result in much in the way of marketable skills.

Note that the pursuit of a musical career does not necessarily preclude liberal-arts breadth, especially in non-conservatory students. A marginal player might well be marginal because they simply don't practice very much. Lesser schools will probably allow such a player to scrape past, while they explore other options and decide if they like anything else better -- for a marginal player the difference between utter devotion to improvement and slacking may make relatively little difference in long-term income potential.

November 26, 2014 at 02:45 AM · My background gives me first-hand familiarity with both the small liberal arts college and the big state school. You can get quite a good education at the state school -- including plenty of "liberal arts" breadth if you want it -- but you have to be much more self-motivated to succeed there. My current department prides itself on individual attention afforded to students, but it's still not what one would get at a place like Oberlin, Hope, or Richmond.

November 26, 2014 at 02:34 PM · Yeah, the "student loan crisis" was a new concept for me. In my country there are public conservatories. Even so, private teachers can charge quite an important amount of money.

December 13, 2014 at 01:18 AM · So I come back to this board since a few weeks back and woah...I can see how much thought and decisions I am starting to form.

I am currently working on Bruch, actually. I received a new violin teacher by the name of 'Jacob Lakirovich', he teaches in his own private studio and many of his students have become successful professionals.

I decided that I wanted to follow a musical career, as I explained earlier on. My parents decided to support me on the career, yet they suggested I make a backup plan. And so I did....My backup is to go into life sciences or engineering, aim towards the pathway of a Biochemist or a Biochemical Engineer.

I may have revealed a bit too much about myself...?

December 13, 2014 at 03:31 AM · Nah...but when I see you in person...I'll be asking for your autograph! ;)

December 13, 2014 at 03:43 AM · Biochemistry and engineering are good careers. Once you have your degree, whether bs or phd, you can start to carve out time for music. I still recommend that you study the hell out of the violin now, while your brain still functions and you have not yet learned what "busy" really means.

December 13, 2014 at 05:46 AM · Eric, you say you are working on Bruch--may I ask what school grade you are in right now? Bruch in 9th grade is one thing, in 12th grade quite another if you have ambitions to be a professional musician.

December 13, 2014 at 05:53 AM · Eric's bio on this site says that he's in his 2nd year of high school, so presumably a 10th-grader.

If you intend to do biochemistry or bioengineering in college, don't count on having significant time to practice during those years. Get your practice time in while you can, during your high school years.

December 13, 2014 at 01:39 PM · The second year of high-school is normally Grade 11...unless Ontario is still different from the rest of the Nation. I haven't lived there for years. They may have gone with a Grade 9-12 approach. They do do things differently from time to time...they used to have a Grade 13.

Now I'm curious...I'll have to go look...

December 13, 2014 at 05:00 PM · "Eric, you say you are working on Bruch--may I ask what school grade you are in right now?"

You don't need to answer to this. Believe me. This kind of questions only seek to discourage you and make you feel bad.

December 14, 2014 at 04:24 AM · No, the question was designed to get a better idea of the OP's prospects. Bruch in 10th grade is pretty good, assuming it's an appropriately chosen piece (there are teachers who assign inappropriately difficult music, so the current piece isn't a foolproof indication).

December 18, 2014 at 12:09 AM · I am in Grade 10, the schooling system here in Canada can differ from other schooling systems in other countries. I am currently practicing as much as I can both in school and out school, including studies, scales, exercises, and pieces. The in-school strings double-credit program is also giving me more time other than my lunch period to help sharpen my skills. I am still not sure if this is enough, though, to become a musician. I also play in another symphony, and that too is giving me a lot more experience than I require and helps sharpen my skills once again. Must I accomplish extra tasks in order to be prepared in any way...?

December 18, 2014 at 12:43 AM · It sounds to me as if you are doing as much as you can. The only thing I would add to that would be for you to consider one of the high-level summer programs, if that fits in your family's world and budget. I don't know what there is in Canada--Banff, maybe--but in the US that would include Aspen, Meadowmount, Interlochen, etc.

December 18, 2014 at 01:05 AM · I'm actually probably going to attend the summer camp my teacher sets up with his sibling in Italy, it's a very nice camp from what I hear, and it may be able to teach me a lot. Thank you for all your help!

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