At what age did you really know you were going to be a professional?

June 13, 2019, 4:28 PM · Hi, I want to know how many of you, current professionals, and by that I mean you, violinists, that are making a living with violin in your hands, whether it's teaching, playing, making violins... had their ideas clear and knew wanted to be musicians or work in the classical music industry.

When you were starting to make your own decisions (+18) did you have a clear view about yourself in the future as a musician?

Didn't you have tremendous doubts about if you really wanted to be a musician, between age 18-30 (vague range, I know, but you get an idea), when you are normally still not stable and everything can change, your friends are studying science, social, etc, degrees?

I guess this post won't be seen by kids or teenagers that really were into classical music and at the 18's, 20's, they decided to do a completely different thing, so I'm missing all of those.

Replies (24)

Edited: June 13, 2019, 4:58 PM · I think you'll find that most people who turn pro put the wheels in motion long before age 18.

As for me, I decided not (not that I had strongly considered it either way) during my mid-teens. I spent a few summers at Tanglewood and saw some of my classmates determined to turn pro. Some of them were really awesome and have gone on to good careers. But there were a bunch of others who weren't much better than I was, if at all. I thought about it and realized that if they were going to make it, they'd have to work 24/7 for a long time-- and I would too, if I were going to keep up with them. Some of them have turned out really well-- but there was not a great risk/reward ratio.

June 13, 2019, 5:34 PM · Thanks for pointing that out, Stephen. You're right, but for example, all my violin teachers have started their career at 24-25 when they had a major and all.

May be you're just talking about world soloists, and I think you're right, those violinist at the age of 10-13 are already touring, but notice this post isn't just about soloists, but every one that decided to make a living using a violin: teaching, performing or making (luthiers).

Also, as a kid you can have nice skills at playing, and even play as a soloist in your state or country at the age of 13-18, but most people start to figure what the want to be when they are 18 or so, I mean, when they start to make their own decisions. When they think "OK, my friends are going to college, one to study physics, another history, other that... do I wanna keep with the violin or should I do it as a hobby and study one of these degrees?"

Edited: June 13, 2019, 5:42 PM · I wasn't thinking about soloists, not really. Frank Almond was my concertmaster one year, and there are others who wound up in the Boston Symphony and similar gigs. But only one biggish solo career with a recording contract, from a pianist who changed his name a couple of times.

Anyway, if you coast into a music department at 18, you probably didn't plan on whom you're studying with, or anything else that a young professional will need to get right. There are plenty of exceptions, of course, but it really helps to have an idea of your career before you decide where to apply to college.

June 13, 2019, 6:26 PM · An interesting follow-on question: For those who were serious but didn't go on to music, when did you know that you weren't going to make it a clear, when did you know? And if you trained as a professional and then left the profession, when did you make the decision to do something else?
June 13, 2019, 8:58 PM · When did I decide I *wanted* to be a professional musician...mid-teens, probably. Certainly before I applied to Oberlin.

When did I *really know* I was going to be a professional...when I got my first job at 23.

Nothing is certain until you actually win a job.

June 13, 2019, 10:26 PM · Performing, teaching, and “making violins” are three different professions.


June 14, 2019, 1:35 AM · Performing and teaching are connected in many cases.
Making violins is not. Only one in two luthiers plays the violin at such a level anyone would listen. Some don't play the violin at all. They just make 'em.
June 14, 2019, 2:50 AM · Yep. The highly reputable luthier I go to for repairs plays viola in a church orchestra and in a quartet that meets regularly to read music, but would never be mistaken for a professional performer.
June 14, 2019, 3:04 AM · How is it possible to not make a decision at 18? In fact how is it possible not to make the decision at the age of 17 or even lower as you have to plan for the tests to get into the uni or lower uni? If you get in, you will be a musician unless you want to quit, but that would be really problematic as how would you be able to get a living then?

Well there are exceptions but to decide at the age of 25 to be a musician sounds a fairy tale to me.
After all one has to make a living.

June 14, 2019, 5:34 AM · An important related question: what was your age when your parents decided to support you becoming a professional musician?
June 14, 2019, 5:55 AM · Jocelyn, that is an interesting question and probably answers my wondering.
In my country university is free so if you start at 18 and dont waste years, you can become whatever profession you want and are capable of becoming.

Well you need parent support to start violin as a kid, so there are always limitations of course.

June 14, 2019, 6:09 AM · It's a funny question about parental support. Mine were a little dubious, unless I was clearly interested in only that. I had enough irons in the fire elsewhere that (a) a life free-er of stress was an option, and (b) knowing about this option might reduce my commitment or success. Music generally requires that it be your first choice.

Mind you, there were two principals in the Boston Symphony recently who had science PhDs.

Another person I am thinking of was more or less pushed into music, because of being thought to be less brilliant (and definitely easier to handle) than an older sibling. Career and trade school lined up? Great. Next!

June 14, 2019, 7:14 AM · The principal violist of the San Francisco Symphony has a bachelor's degree in chemistry and did not decide to pursue music as a career until he was 21. The principal violist in the West Coast run of Hamilton, who also holds titled chairs in at least two regional orchestras, has a bachelor's degree in marine biology. There's a regional orchestra violist in my area who went back to school for a viola performance degree at 45 after more than 20 years of playing in community orchestras.

These are relatively rare cases, but not as rare as most people think.

Edited: June 14, 2019, 7:47 AM · For my response I'll give the title question of this thread a slightly different perspective.

In my teens I wanted a career in music, and the level I had attained on the cello by that age would have placed me in one of the London colleges. My parents weren't too keen on the idea and set up a meeting with my school's career adviser (who was also the school's principal). The advice given was that music is inherently an uncertain profession and, given my excellent grades in the sciences, I would be far better off pursuing a career in science and engineering, and to have music as a recreation and hobby.

That was sound advice. I went along that road and am glad I made that decision, a first career in science followed by a second in the patents profession, with orchestral cello (now violin in my retirement) as my principal recreation throughout.

June 14, 2019, 8:35 AM · When I was a young person people kept telling me I was "talented." I toyed with the idea of becoming a musician around age 14. Then two things happened. One, I saw a performance on public TV of some tiny child playing something that was still years away for me. Two, I got a piano teacher who I thought was an amazing pianist and a great teacher (he's the one who actually taught me all my theory and all my practice techniques) but who was actually living in poverty.

So I decided at that point to go to medical school and become a doctor. My dad (a chemist) suggested that I major in chemistry because it's a good fall-back if you don't go to medical school. That turned out to be some of the best advice I've ever received because in the middle of my sophomore year I realized (a) I'd make a lousy doctor, and (b) I really loved organic chemistry. That's when I set my sights on grad school and an academic career. The fact that I actually reached a tenured position in an R1 university is something I will credit at least 50% to dumb luck.

June 14, 2019, 8:52 AM · Most students who entered a conservatory were making the decision to PREPARE for that level of playing much earlier than age 17, even if they hadn't committed to a career yet.

I am familiar with people like the violists that Andrew mentions. Even if they didn't decide to major in music in college, they were on par with or perhaps even better than their conservatory-bound peers when they were in high school.

June 14, 2019, 9:02 AM · I remember being told around the age of 15 or 16 that if I wanted a career in music it was now or never, and my violin teacher (flawed as he was) told me I had it in me to make a go of it in the music world. I said no, that I loved playing but I did not want to mar it by having to make money from it. (I never got to discover if I had "it" or not, I never went to Tanglewood, or any other camp, because my parents would not spend the money on it. Judging by what I see on youtube, I made the right decision!) So, I decided well before the age of 18 that I was not going to pursue it.

A friend who has a master's in performance (different instrument), knew from early-mid teens that they were going to become a musician. They're now working in an unrelated field, after years of trying to land a job.

June 14, 2019, 9:06 AM · "How is it possible to not make a decision at 18? In fact how is it possible not to make the decision at the age of 17 or even lower as you have to plan for the tests to get into the uni or lower uni? If you get in, you will be a musician unless you want to quit, but that would be really problematic as how would you be able to get a living then?"

How is it possible? You realize not every body knows what they want to be when they finish high school, right? Life is very complex, a roller coaster, very few people have their ideas really clear.

May be you misunderstood. Deciding at 18 doesn't mean "OK, I'm gonna start today with the violin and I will be a violinist". No, it means you've finished high school, and you've been playing for a few years the violin, and it's time to decide what do you really want to become. Just like if you decide you want to get a math degree, you don't start studying math at 18. Also, many, many people start a degree and after 2 or 3 years they realize it's not what they want to do, some drop out, some go to an another totally different degree... in my last high school year I can say more than 30% of my class mates changed their path in college after 1 or 2 years in a degree they didn't like really. Also, many people don't decide to go to college until they are in their 20's because they are figuring out what they want to do, or are busy with other life projects.

My post is about those students mostly that finished high school and could either follow a music degree or a science/human studies degree. I'm interested in those that decided music over other choices, being those choices more or less equally possible. Luthiers also count because why not, it's intriguing for me how someone in their 20's decides to be a luthier and go for it, and I want to read their experiences.

June 14, 2019, 9:58 AM · I believe that it's not unusual for people to embark on a luthier career after retirement, or sometime mid-career. I think the same is true for bow-makers.

I agree with Frieda. People who career-switch into performance in their twenties generally had serious playing chops in high school, and most maintained or improved on that skill level in the intervening years even if they didn't go to conservatory.

June 14, 2019, 12:33 PM · Also at age 19, second year of college. I was having real trouble with my math and physics courses, but got promoted to concertmaster of my college orchestra. I changed majors, to music, and transferred to a big city music school. I will probably never know if I made the right decision.
June 14, 2019, 6:36 PM · I got a math degree simultaneously with my bachelor's in violin performance; the double degree program at Oberlin was what drew me there in the first place. I liked math but I didn't love it. I loved playing the violin. The math degree was only ever there as a backup plan, and more importantly, because it pacified my parents.
Edited: June 14, 2019, 7:18 PM · “The principal violist of the San Francisco Symphony has a bachelor's degree in chemistry”

The fact many musicians have non-music degree doesn’t mean they are late starters or not well prepared. Yo-yo Ma graduated from Harvard with a degree in anthropology; the most recent winner of Queen Elizabeth, Stella Chen, has a Harvard degree in psychology. The list is very long, especially among those who have been well prepared from childhood, thus making the undergraduate music degree unnecessary or less critical.

June 14, 2019, 7:36 PM · Yes, but the point is not about late starters. I was responding to Maria Lammi, who said: "How is it possible to not make a decision at 18?" The people I named did not make the decision at 18, which is what the original question was about.
Edited: June 14, 2019, 8:20 PM · I'm 21 years old and made the decision to career-switch into performance less than 2 years ago (the fall semester of my junior year). I got my bachelor's in biochemistry (graduated a month ago), and spent my first two college summers doing bioorganic chemistry research at the NIH. I enjoyed it, but realized during my second summer there that I really wanted to be making music. I had been diligently preparing for my orchestra's concertmaster auditions and preparing a fall junior recital that summer and practiced for around 2-3 hours a night. My sophomore spring had contained academic disappointments (I felt that I lacked the intuition necessary to thrive in biochemistry courses), and I began to ask myself, "Why am I working so hard at this (i.e. the violin) if it will become a secondary activity in my life 2 years from now? And why do I want to work so hard at this?"

What ensued was a hard, psychologically draining process. I had to combat all the years I (and my parents) had told myself that music was not a viable career option for me because the odds were way too slim and I was not good enough. I talked to many of my friends who were pursuing music, and the main thing they stressed to me is that the concept of "good enough to go into music" isn't a useful one, but rather how dedicated one is. The next two years contained ups and downs, but all of these (ESPECIALLY the failures) helped me improve at a rate far greater than I ever had (and I had to improve this fast to simply catch up with my colleagues who had their heads in the game all along! I'm not convinced I've fully caught up yet).

I plan to start taking professional auditions in the fall (in addition to my masters at IU), and Mary Ellen is completely right - regardless of these positive things, you don't know you can do music professionally for sure until you win your first job. It is also important to note that I won (and competed) in competitions regularly as a child and was in NYO-USA for 2 summers. I'm not saying this to brag but rather to add to Lydia's point above. While I had (and still have) some serious work to do to become as professional a player as possible, I was already starting out from a relatively strong place amongst the peers in my age group, and if I hadn't been in that position, my quick transition from biochemistry would have been much more difficult if not impossible.


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