Too Late to make a good Career?

Edited: January 29, 2019, 2:01 AM · Hello,
I'm 15, Freshman in my second term of high school, and I'm currently learning the Rode concerto #7 (1st mvmt only), and I'm working on the Kayser etudes. Assuming that I have some degree of talent and musical sense, as well as the ability to practice well, is it too late for me to reach, eventually, a level where I could get a masters in performance, or study at a conservatory? I love music more than anything, but I'm concerned that I'm too far behind all the other student violinists that I won't be good enough when it comes to College apps and stuff. Opinions?

Replies (35)

Edited: January 29, 2019, 1:24 AM · No. Those are achievable goals - it just depends on how hard you work between now and then and what schools you have your sights set on.

That's the easy bit though - getting the career after school is where it's really difficult. More so than any other field, just graduating with a degree, be it bachelors, masters, or a DMA - does not guarantee or even drastically increase your chances for most roles outside of educator. There is a very limited market in full time musical careers and the competition is probably one of the fiercest employment competitions on the planet.

January 29, 2019, 1:46 AM · I'd call it difficult but achievable.

There are even a handful of string players in major orchestras who started on string instruments as late as 14 or 15 without little or no prior musical training. A few months ago, I was able to find three such musicians listed in the major London orchestras alone. Late starters (as in people who started in double-digit ages) are uncommon in the professional ranks, but not quite as rare as many people think -- I'd estimate it's something like one in 30-50 pros, not one in thousands.

I've also met one regional orchestra player in California who went back to school for a degree in viola performance at 45, though she wasn't a late starter but rather a lifelong high-level amateur who had the chops to go to conservatory and become a pro. Conservatories will accept you at any age if you're good enough; it's just that, for most older musicians, life circumstances make it harder to put in the work necessary to turn a conservatory degree into a career.

January 29, 2019, 2:33 AM · 'Conservatories will accept you at any age if you're good enough; it's just that, for most older musicians, life circumstances make it harder to put in the work necessary to turn a conservatory degree into a career. '

Absolutely the case.. My progression is limited more by my 40+ hour work week and outside commitments than my pure potential and age.

January 29, 2019, 6:35 AM · I think it's possible, but you're going to have to practice extremely effectively and also crank up the time you're spending practicing. I'm your grade (a year younger, though) and also planning on going to conservatory. Work smarter. For stuff on practicing, you might want to check out Cedarvillemusic's YouTube channel, and look up "Cedarvillemusic practice." It's a 5 part series on how to work through repertoire effectively. Now you need to build up practice endurance. On a good day, I'll practice maybe 5 hours, and minimally 2 hours. I usually go (on a 5 hour day): Scales/arpeggios/tone exercises/some studies or etudes, then short pieces for upcoming performances, then solo Bach, then major concertos (Bruch 1 and Mozart 4 right now), then revisiting old repertoire to keep it in shape or more etudes and technique stuff.
Yeah, I think your goals are possible, just focus and don't forget to love what you do.
January 29, 2019, 8:15 AM · Am I the only one who sees Rode No. 7 Concerto and Kayser studies as rather inconsistent in terms of level? Rode No. 7 is fairly high-octane as far as "student" concertos go. Kayser studies are like Suzuki Book 5 material.
January 29, 2019, 8:21 AM · That seems inconsistent to me, too. IIRC, Rode 7 was the last student concerto I did before doing Mendelssohn, and by that time, I'd already done most of Kreutzer and had started Dont op 35.

Aidan, when did you start playing? How much do you practice? What other repertoire have you done over the last three years?

January 29, 2019, 8:42 AM · Yeah, what other rep have you done? I'd be curious to know.
January 29, 2019, 10:14 AM · How long have you been playing and how dedicated are you? If you have not been playing that long and are willing to put in the time, you could get there. But if you've been playing for 10 years and this is as far as you have gotten, it seems less likely you will be able to advance rapidly enough. I would suggest a few things:
1) Find an amazing teacher
2) Drop other extracurriculars, and limit orchestra
3) Practice a minimum of 2 hours a day
4) Take a gap year after senior year and spend the whole year practicing
5) Expect to take a slightly meandering path -- likely a second or third tier music school, then time off (or a certificate program) for more practicing, then a master's program.

Also, what is your ultimate goal? If you just want to teach little kids and play in local gig orchestras, that is a whole lot more achievable than an orchestral or chamber or solo career.

Edited: January 29, 2019, 10:26 AM · Whenever I see something like Kayser in combination with a tough concerto, my money is on the student's correct level being much closer to the former. I know a young student who performed the Accolay concerto a few months ago with a no-audition community orchestra. The tempo was slow by half. The other day I asked him what he's working on and he told me Mozart 4. Okay, that's just pointless. All I could do is smile and say "Good luck."
January 29, 2019, 11:26 AM · It's impossible to answer the OP's question without knowing the level at which he is playing his given repertoire. I've heard students say they were playing Lalo, and then I have heard their performances....those students absolutely should not be playing Lalo. Rode #7 is difficult, but the salient point is not *what* the OP is playing; it is *how* the OP is playing it.

I agree that Kayser is inconsistent with Rode #7.

What I tell those among my students who have the chops to go to conservatory is that they should only consider going into music if they can't imagine being happy doing anything else. Throwing oneself into the fulltime preparation for a professional career is a lot of work for the privilege of buying a lottery ticket. That being said, my own daughter is heading down that path, so....

There certainly are violinists who are not great players and who could never win a fulltime orchestra job who are still making a living, in some cases a pretty good one, teaching lessons and playing weddings. That life takes an engaging personality, a high tolerance for uncertainty, and a monstrous work ethic.

Edited: January 29, 2019, 9:33 PM · "Assuming that I have some degree of talent and musical sense"

You might want to ask your teacher rather than assume these things.

We really can't tell you anything without hearing you play, and even then, I wouldn't trust any internet forum to give you an accurate trajectory of your future (with the exception of one, maybe two members here).

Edited: January 30, 2019, 3:51 AM · Here's the thing: Do what you love. It's easier to learn the more "lucrative" professions than it is to learn the violin, so if your life doesn't take the direction you hoped for and you don't end up being a professional violinist, then so what? You still have the violin and you can still play it, and your career choices might change. You won't lose what you've worked for, and you're too young to know how things are going to turn out. I intended to be a professional violinist, and it was my whole world (and my first degree), but things happened, my career changed and now I'm a civil engineer who still plays the violin. Regrets? None, whatsoever. Time is precious and my advice is to spend it doing things you really like doing.
January 30, 2019, 5:41 AM · If education is free, I'd say what's 4 years of your life? But if not... what if OP jumps into a music degree, gets $60k in debt and discovers it's not going to work out? (This is where I don't envy Americans)
Edited: January 30, 2019, 6:28 AM · As many have said on similar threads, you can still enjoy playing without forcing it to be your main source of income.

I deeply love the violin, but in your shoes I wouldn't trade my current career for something that needs serious monetary, mental, and physical exertion yet promises so little.

January 30, 2019, 8:22 AM · I agree with Gemma regarding the cost of pursuing a music education, although I think $60K in debt is a low estimate. "Do what you love" must be considered alongside the opportunity cost as well as the financial cost of a music education. You can't necessarily easily pick up the education for a more lucrative career later if you have the millstone of an enormous student loan hanging around your neck with no corresponding enormous income to pay it off.

The OP needs to have a frank conversation with his teacher regarding his future.

January 30, 2019, 9:29 AM · "Conservatories will accept you at any age if you're good enough"

No, they won't. Unless they're low-level and desperate.

January 30, 2019, 9:48 AM · Agree with Mr. Pijoan above. Doing what you love trumps any possible "big income",following an unhappy career choice. Glad he shared his story, and that he's proud of his violin studies even if it didn't end up being his main career.

Of course do not "get into violin" to be a rich and "big name" soloist. Similarly most orchestras are extremely competitive to get in to-are you open to be happy playing (and perhaps teaching) the violin outside of those career positions?

I think the violin is more of a lifestyle choice than just a "career", but I know I am in the minority by most regular standards.

January 30, 2019, 10:42 AM · "Doing what you love trumps any possible "big income",following an unhappy career choice"

Does it?

January 30, 2019, 10:45 AM · Yes
January 30, 2019, 11:19 AM · Yes, possible, especially if you specialize in a genre outside of the main-stream, classical track. But, at some point you will be competing against brilliant players that started when they were 7. The cost can be reduced by going to a second-tier music school attached to a public university in your home state. There are some good ones. For my state, Calif., I recommend CSU Long Beach, Northridge. Susan A's advice is valuable.
January 30, 2019, 11:28 AM · I have a lot of friends who are doing what they love, and that's awesome. However, I can tell you that the ones that are doing what they love, where that thing they love provides financial security and a comfortable income, are generally a whole heck of a lot less stressed (and therefore generally happier) than those who are in fields that don't provide that stability.

Some of that can be dependent on whom you marry (if you marry), to be honest. Someone pursuing their passion in life, married to someone with a high stable income (who may be gutting it out in an uninspiring but high-paying job, in order to facilitate their spouse's dream, note), is going to have a far easier time of things.

January 30, 2019, 1:28 PM · I have to agree with Lydia regarding doing what you love but being stressed all the time because you don't have enough money, or you have barely enough. I did five years of postdocs right after the Great Recession in major US cities during which I was paid only enough to get by paycheck-to-paycheck. If the car broke down, I'd have to put the repairs on my credit card (or ask relatives for money). I didn't own a smart phone because I couldn't afford it.

I loved the work I was doing. I was looking for a tenure-track(TT) job which never materialized. At the end of my final postdoc, my options were to get another temporary academic gig (VAP-trapping,adjuncting while on food stamps) or leave academia. I felt I couldn't wait any longer, so I took at job at a corporation that does contract evaluation research, mostly for the Department of Health and Human Services.

Some of my friends also on the postdoc/VAP/adjuncting track who had trust funds, or who were married to lawyers, financiers, or software engineers could adjunct or VAP longer than me and eventually found the TT job that matched them perfectly.

I use my skills every day and I think my work is important, but I've compromised on autonomy by not continuing on the academic track. I like my job. However, the point is that my stress levels diminished dramatically once I got a job that actually paid enough to meet day-to-day exigencies and even save a little. My life is better although I am not doing the thing I wanted to do the most.

The numbers are perhaps about the same for a TT academic job in my field and orchestral jobs, I think. Others can correct me if I've got it wrong about orchestral jobs. In my field there are about 200-300 applications for each TT job that may pay anywhere from 40K to 70K. (My friends and mentors who sit on search committees estimate probably 3/4 of the applicants would do well in the position; most are not frivolous applications.) The academic job search is perhaps a little more unfair than the orchestral job search since the department is evaluating not only whether they think your research is cool(which is already subjective)but whether they want to have an office next to yours for the next 40 years. No evaluations behind a screen; your temperament, personality, and reputation in the discipline are part of the package. However, on the positive side, they almost always fund your visit to campus for interviews. For orchestral jobs, you're going to need to come up with the money yourself to fly out to auditions.


January 30, 2019, 1:39 PM · People are poor at predicting what they will love in the future. Which is why people change soul-mates, houses, and careers. If humans really were good at figuring out what would make us happy, we wouldn't need divorce lawyers, or laser tattoo removers.

The flaw in Adalberto's logic is that
1. There is the assumption that a big-money career will, by definition, be less satisfying or challenging than a low-paying career in music.
2. That loving music now means you will love it later, when one's values (buying a home, having kids, planning for retirement, not working at night, etc) will certainly change.

Someone forced into law by their parents could just as easily end up loving law as someone defying their parents by making a career out of music and discovering they're both poor and disenchanted with music.
There's no guaranteed or predictable outcome with these long-term decisions because so much of what happens relies on chance.

I'm not saying one should chose what one hates. But we need to be careful of what we think will make us happy, like chucking a successful career to open a cupcake shop, as if it will be the answer to everything.
Making cupcakes may be interesting for a while....or drudgery.

Reading suggestion:

"Choose Wisely: how should we decide what to do?" by Joshua Rothman in the New Yorker, Jan 21 2019, p. 26. An interesting meditation on how and why we make the choices we do.

January 30, 2019, 2:02 PM · None of us know if it's too late for you. I personally think it's too early to make that choice. There is absolutely nothing wrong with spending the next year practicing 5 hours a day and reevaluating your progress at that point.
January 30, 2019, 2:07 PM · I always like to note that what makes us happy when we do it as a hobby, is super different than doing that thing as a job.

I went into computer science because I loved coding as a hobby during my childhood. It turns out that I don't much like professional programming for a wide variety of reasons, even though I still enjoy it as a hobby. So I went into Operations instead post-graduation, and I was good at that, too... but operations tends to involve a lifestyle of being slave to a pager (even at the executive level). Thus I became an industry analyst, doing technology strategy and advisory instead -- but I hold a job that has maybe 2,000 total people doing it worldwide (and each year, I get a ton of email from people who want to figure out the path to getting this job, to which the answer is "hard work, the right personality, and a lot of luck").

The fastest way to disliking something is to become dependent upon it for your precarious income.

January 30, 2019, 2:52 PM · I don't have an answer to the OP, but I do agree with Lydia, Jocelyn and Scott.

(Hahaha Scott, you mean I'm NOT going to love the Hamburgler tattoo I just got on my neck in 10 years' time?!?!?!)

Anecdotally speaking, I had once been told that I could have done music for a living and I'm SO GLAD I did not see that through (I realize now that it would have been a mistake for me to do so between "talent"/being good-enough, discipline, gumption and all the other factors that come into play when being a musician. Barring everything else, I feel that I would not have been able to "make it", the way I would have wanted to, as a violinist.)

I considered pursuing another path after my initial failed career post-college, but did research on the ROI for my education costs, the post-grad salary ranges and long term salary ranges available (including "what does retirement look like" and "what sort of healthcare do these people have" type-questions). It was grim enough that I decided not to pursue it. So, I am sticking with doing something that is a good fit for my personality, working style, and with what comes "naturally" to me. And I'm pretty happy, even with the days filled with drudgery (which do happen, because that's life, but it doesn't happen a lot).

So, I guess you have a discussion with your teacher in your future, and some research to try to tease out of this is something you think would be worth it for you to do.

January 30, 2019, 3:05 PM · But what makes us happy is a personal choice, Mr. Cole. Therefore "maybe you will be happy, maybe you won't" isn't a valid approach for me in particular. "Don't even plan on studying music, because you may change your mind!" is not an advice I would give. We are allowed to make choices and see what happens. Often we need to make the "wrong choice" to discover a new path.

I personally cannot live without the violin, and as much as this may sound like a romantic exaggeration, I know as much. I also know there must be others who equally love it as much (if not more!)

And I wouldn't actually recommend studying violin anyway to anyone unless the individual is "full on", as a "big career" is hardly warranted for even the good players. You gotta love it at some level, or just do something else.

Of course one can be happy studying something else other than violin. And people should follow that path as well if that's the case, whether they know it will bring them "ultimate happiness" (however you may define it.)

January 30, 2019, 5:32 PM · I find Lydia's point interesting, marry a rich person and do what you want.:-)) Not that that would entail no risk ...

In my culture people often joke, when it's bedtime and the light goes out, everyone looks the same.

February 5, 2019, 9:01 PM · Thank you to everyone for the advice! I would like to add in response to those who were talking about the discrepancy between Rode and Kayser.

For me, Rode is not particularly challenging, and I'm almost done with it after ~1.5 months, and as far as etudes, I'm basically done with Kayser and starting Kreutzer (I expect I'll sprinkle in a few other etudes along the way as well).

I really love violin, and if I can make a career out of it, then great! If not, it's not like I don't have other options (I do very well in school, and engineering has always interested me). While I obviously can't predict the future, no matter what career I choose, I know I'll always be playing violin, whether it's my source of income or not.

Edited: February 8, 2019, 8:41 AM · Aidan, you'll be fine. Just keep practicing and looking into every detail. I'm only 2 years older than you and I ask the same question to myself, my mother (she's a musician) and my teachers. As some teachers may disagree, there is no exact science to what concerto or what etude you should play first. Sure paganini caprices are much more advanced than mazas or the Beethoven concerto is much more advanced than Symphonie Espangole. I'm currently playing Tchaikovsky and many of my friends think thats ridiculous because I've only played about 4 other major concerto's but the Tchaik feels easier than Mendelssohn and it's probably what I'm going to play for my college auditions. In regards to etudes, I've done maybe 15-20 kreutzers, 2 Dont, 1 Rode, 1 Wieniawski and Paganini's No. 4 (current), 5, 13 and 17. I think I played these quite well, given my teacher has very high standards for me. Even my teacher once said the only etudes a violinist needs are Kreutzer, Wieniawski, and Paganini. He was a top Prizewinner in Queen Elisabeth so he probably knows what he's talking about. Even he, a virtuoso soloist, practices Kreutzer etudes every day. There are many other people who go on to have great careers, who were not super advanced in high school. One of my meadowmount friends has passed his prescreens at many major conservatories, even though he started playing violin in the middle of 8th grade. He was just starting the Bruch concerto over the summer. A friend and mentor of mine won a top prize in one of the biggest music competitions in the world. He did not start learning major concertos until he was a junior in high school, and countless teachers told him he would never make it. I know this is the cheesiest line there is, but you really have to believe in yourself. Live in the moment and try to perfect every detail. Don't be thinking so much about college and the future at this stage. Just try to focus and improve. Hope this helps.
Edited: February 8, 2019, 10:04 AM · I don't think the problematic hurdle is getting into a conservatory. There are many conservatory graduates who will never get a well- or even modestly-paying orchestral job, let alone a solo or chamber music career. In the mid-1980s I played the Haydn C Major at a master class (only one I've ever done) for a faculty member of the Cleveland Institute of Music. He told my teacher I should apply and that I had a good chance of admission. No doubt they need students to justify the number of faculty members they employ. I expect that the standards for being the most marginal violin student at CIM are much higher now than in 1985, but you don't want to be in that position. It's a bit of a business. Graduate education (especially full tuition MAs and MSes) is similar.

On the other hand, if you get a full ride to a conservatory, I think you should go for it! You can always re-invent yourself if a music career doesn't work out, and you'll have an amazing skill! You don't want to be saddled with debt and no job, as Gemma and Mary Ellen have already mentioned.

February 8, 2019, 11:19 AM · Aidan, high school is a great time to really work on a hobby in-depth, such as the violin. You probably aren't going to have as much free time to do the work as you currently do (I know that some kids are really overscheduled, but still). You should put in the work and try and enjoy your practice and performing, and not put too much pressure on yourself by comparing yourself to others and where you "should" be.

When it comes time to apply for colleges, see where you are, and maybe you will have made a lot of solid progress, or maybe you won't quite be ready for a conservatory. In the former case, then go ahead and apply to conservatories as well as other schools. In the latter case, you can always find a big school that still has a good music program, and you may be able to do some kind of music minor, or otherwise continue taking lessons with faculty, or you could even take lessons with a local teacher that isn't on the faculty.

You don't need to plan your whole future out now, but let me tell you that there is nothing about not getting into a conservatory that means you can't keep playing and getting better at violin. I'm 31 and I'm still making progress and playing the best I've ever played, and I largely misused my time with the violin at your age. There is also a certain freedom to playing as an adult without having to rely on it financially - You get to say no to playing stuff you don't want, and you can really pursue certain avenues that you might not have time for if you are playing professionally.

Keep your options open!

Edited: February 8, 2019, 3:06 PM · Aidan what is a good musical career in your view? What do you see yourself doing as a musician? You like music, we all do in this forum but having a non-musical career does not preclude playing music. The question asked by many is do you see yourself doing what musicians have to do to earn a decent living, and playing music is only part of that. Those who play professionally amongst us are best placed to enlighten you on what such career entails, and like any profession has, I am certain, its good and bad parts. Once you clearly established what that is (refer to first question above), those in the know will be better able to advise you on what it takes and the feasibility of achieving that dream.
February 8, 2019, 3:22 PM · Aidan,

The answer to your question depends on how you define and envision: "A good career." Can you become the next superstar soloist in high demand all over the planet. Perhaps, but not probable.

Can you take your love of music and translate that into an eclectic career of semi-professional playing with local orchestras at "scale" as well as teaching instruments and music in general? Yes, with a much higher probability but long days and a middle range income at best.

You can also mix your love of music with a day-job that provides a better income with much better hours.

In my over 70 years of living I have discovered that success is spelled with letters, not dollar-signs. Not all top professional musicians are "happy" and there have been more than a few shooting-stars that had their moment of glory and flamed out fast.

I was twice your age when I first took violin lessons and for over 40 years I've enjoyed playing, even if only for myself, my wife and the cats. I've never been paid to play I had a good professional career that paid me well. I consider myself a success and am passing on what I know to the next generation of musicians who could never afford to pay anyone for lessons. That is how I define a good career.

At 15 you have a lot of options, keep them open.

February 8, 2019, 8:13 PM · Christian, I think that's a dangerous strategy. Kids only have so much time. Someone who is hoping to catch up really has to put in as much time as possible -- three or four hours of day of practice, in all likelihood. Maybe that's tried for a year and if not enough progress has been made, it's time for another plan. But just cruising along as before isn't going to cut it.

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