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It's Time For 'The Talk'

Preparing for a career in music with eyes wide open.

by Holly Mulcahy
December 3, 2007

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It's Time For 'The Talk'

I remember the day I received "The Talk". At 15 years old, I was just starting to realize that I wanted to be a professional musician. After feeling the thrill of youth orchestras and the exhilaration of summer music festivals, it was evident to me that this is how I wanted to spend my life. I informed my violin teacher that I wanted to audition for a music conservatory and then spend my life in either the Boston Symphony or maybe Chicago. I told him that "I'd like to be concertmaster" and that is what sparked the need for "The Talk."

My teacher's talk to me was an attempt to bring reality into my life without crushing my dreams.

"You know classical music is a difficult business, right?" he said. "You can work and practice until you are as good as you think possible and it still might not be enough. The competition is stiff, and do not kid yourself, everybody wants it just as bad as you do. If you are lucky and talented enough to get a job, you still might not make enough to live on. Sometimes having a job doesn't offer any security either; orchestras go out of business."

I had an understanding of how orchestras go out of business. About the same time I received "The Talk", the Denver Symphony was having troubles, and finally collapsed. I remember thinking "that couldn't possibly happen to me, I was better than that!" I looked at my teacher like he was crazy and I felt moderately annoyed that he felt the need to offend me with such negativity. And off to conservatory I went.

It turns out, of course, that my teacher was right. Once I had a few years behind me in music school, I saw the competition and the lack of jobs. Of course I couldn't possibly admit to my old teacher that he was right. I just had to practice and work hard to win a job…to prove to him that he was wrong.

I had completely forgotten "The Talk" until last week. My teenage violin student had just informed me that she received first chair in a state orchestra and now wants to consider a career in music. She said, "I think it would be fun to sit in rehearsals all day, practice at home, and play concerts."

While the competition is just as stiff now as it was then, the orchestra jobs aren't as "safe" as when I was her age. So I asked her if she would like to think about something besides performing in an orchestra. Her answer was no, so that is what sparked her "talk." Just like for me, she needed to know of the challenges an orchestral career could have. To walk into this field with no idea of problems is careless and irresponsible.

To this day, I am thankful my teacher was frank with me. Had I blindly entered this field, I most certainly would have failed or have been very disappointed. It does bother me that the topic was not covered in my college conservatory though. Too often colleges are just concerned with taking money and pushing out talent. I wonder how much more healthy this music industry would be if colleges took a more active roll in training students to be aware of the pitfalls of the music profession.

I must say that it was absolutely surreal for me to be on the giving end of "The Talk." Although I did not want to squash the dreams of a talented violin student, watching many good friends who are members in the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra get locked out made me realize that I needed to make sure my student was going into the business with her eyes open.

She gave me the same sort of look I gave my teacher 15 years ago but that was okay, if she's fortunate she'll be giving that talk to one of her students in 15 years.

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Frank Manheim from Fairfax VA writes:
December 3, 2007
My daughter had the same experience. She went on to the New England Conservatory, got jobs with several orchestras and ended up in the Kansas City Symphony, where she is now as a career violinist. Never had a reality talk from me. Nothing else whe wanted to do.

I am not sure that kids need talks. Because even if they don't make orchestras their training in discipline and skill development through preparing for a musical career will qualify them very well in any other areas. And their musical skills will be a lifelong treasure in musical opportunities wherever they go.


Dan from USA writes:
January 11, 2008
I've told several of my students, "if there's anything else in the world you can do and be happy, you should do that thing."

If there's nothing else in the world that you can do and be happy, then do music with all your heart, mind and strength.

but whichever is your choice, keep playing.

Jessie writes:
January 25, 2008
Hi Holly,

I'm glad I stumbled across your blog, I'm really enjoying reading everything you've written. You gave me that talk as well, six-ish years ago. I'm now in my last year of getting my masters degree and although grateful to you for having given the talk, I'm also very glad I ignored it. Although nervous about transitioning to non-student life as a musician, as all rational people would be, I'd think, I can't imagine regretting all that I've gained from pursuing music.

Thanks for being a great teacher, and glad to see that you're doing well!

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