Ask The Teacher:
Director of The Music School of Delaware and
Member of the Serafin String Quartet
A Cello student from Texas asks: I'm getting ready to graduate and I'm worried about my career path, advice?
The truth is, with regard to professional situations, most of us in the field of instrumental music performance, and music academia and education, “end up where we end up”. We all train from a young age toward the highest level of proficiency in our specialty (mine being ostensibly “violin”, but, in reality, “string quartet”) and, then, opportunity and circumstance dictate how things actually play out. In my training years, and right on through my six years in a full-time string quartet, I never would have expected so-called “music administration” to have played any part of my professional life. Today it is central!
When we are young, we have nothing to do but aspire and achieve. As we mature, “life” also enters in to what happens career-wise – our family situations (who we follow, marry, our children), our financial background (which can restrict or facilitate our ability to pursue education, summer programs, competitions), our geographic location, our personality, our values – all of these, and more factors, shape, propel and/or hinder us, each step of the way.
I am sure, for example, that I was hindered in some ways by a relatively late start to taking the violin really seriously. The fact that I didn’t start practicing assiduously until I was already age 14 meant that my efforts to achieve technical mastery were well behind others who had started diligent and extensive practice at age 2, or age 4 or age 10. On the other hand, I never took music or violin “for granted” at any level - by the time I started seriously practicing I already knew I wanted to be a string quartet player professionally. This passion, in turn, fueled my discipline to work hard, and I was highly motivated. I never looked back.
The twists and turns of career and life are always unique to the individual. For me, like for most people, I ended up residing in a geographic location because of where my schooling took me. The northeast proved an intense and vibrant region for music, literally saturated with highly trained performers – and also with performance opportunities. This ended up being a boon for me in that I resided in an area rich with excellent players with whom I could forge a meaningful and high-level chamber music career.
The best direction I could offer any young, aspiring instrumental performer is to become as proficient as you possibly can in your specialty, and apply your proficiency fearlessly to taking, and making opportunities for yourself. If you prepare to the greatest degree you can, you will end up with a greater array of choices.
More than anything, in my own professional life, I have valued having those choices: the choice to be a full-time quartet player, the choice NOT to be a full-time quartet player, the choice to play concert performances exclusively and the choice NOT to play “gigs”. These are things that happen to matter to me – things I happen to value. I know others who would never desire to lead my life as an executive in an educational institution, and perceive it as a life of headaches, stress and drudgery. But, I would rather work in a position of leadership in educational programs (like my current position as president of The Music School of Delaware – a place which reflects and fulfills my values) and, in turn, be able to focus my performance time exclusively on formal chamber music concerts. While, for many, the stress of organizational leadership is intolerable, for me, working as a professional “jobber” playing in orchestras and driving here there and everywhere to play weddings and background music would be a life wholly unsatisfying.
Each musician’s professional landscape reflects who they are, what they value, what gives satisfaction or causes untenable stress. For each person, these things are different from others.
So – to live a fulfilling life in the music performance field – train, train, train! Work hard early-on to be all that you can be as a player, and to know as much as you can about music. Your path will unfold in unexpected ways, no matter what – and as you grow and discover more and more who you are and what makes you “tick”, if you are thoroughly trained and ready for opportunity, you will have positioned yourself to have the greatest possible set of options.