It’s August, which means lots of people right now are getting ready to go back to music school — or to start it for the first time. Below are the five biggest pieces of advice that I’d give myself, and my friends, if I could go back in time.
1. Dream very, very big and don’t sell yourself short. Don’t identify yourself as “a better second violinist,” “a teacher,” or any such thing. You have no idea what you are capable of yet. Don’t refuse to take an audition because you think you won’t get accepted. Don’t say no to yourself; let them say no to you. Take every audition for every opportunity you can. Assume that you are good enough to play with the big shots.
2. If your parents can’t bankroll your entire education, you should think seriously about the amount of debt you’re taking on. Understand what your monthly payment will be when you graduate. Think twice before using Stafford loans to go out to bars with your friends, rent a nicer apartment, or even to go to Aspen all summer. Earn some money while you’re in school so that you’re in less debt when you get out of school. Don’t let your teacher shame you out of working. Frankly, they’re not the ones who have to make these payments, and most of them went to school before tuition costs exploded. Juggling practice time with a day job may be something you need to get used to.
3. Make a fantastic impression on people around you. Care about others; be a great colleague. Go to their recitals and their birthday parties. Spend your energy building good relationship with people. Everyone at your school — from your studio teacher to adjunct composition faculty to the 2nd oboist in orchestra — may be in a position to help you, hire you, or be your friend in the future. Do not gossip or cut others down behind their backs.
4. Be a grateful person. Believe it or not, you are not entitled to this experience. Right now, you are surrounded by master artists whose job it is to help you learn, grow, and succeed. That is a once-in-a-lifetime privilege. (Okay, maybe twice in a lifetime.) In the future, you will have to work much harder for an audience at your solo and chamber music recitals. In the future, it will be much more challenging to find the right mentor for your career. In the future, you may teach and play weddings all summer instead of going to Switzerland. Savor the incredible experiences you’re having. Unfortunately, a very positive attitude in classical music is not the norm — so if you have this attitude, you’ll stand out.
5. Pay attention to how the work of being a musician makes you feel. Do you feel challenged, excited, anxious, bored? Many of us have been playing since we were five years old, and we haven’t given much thought to the challenges and realities of this job. Do you know why you’re going to music school? If not, give that question some thought. If another area of work interests you, take the opportunity to give it a try. If making music doesn’t feel right anymore, or if struggling financially in the future doesn’t appeal to you, that’s nothing to be ashamed of. Almost every musician would benefit from talking to a therapist about their career. So go see a school therapist — in the future, therapy will not be free.