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  • Writer's pictureWarren Lee

So, You Want To Be a Musician?

I was sixteen when I took my career aptitude test at Marlborough College in England back in the early 1990s. I rather casually answered the endless list of questions on the test designed to point its takers to the right career path. After a good half an hour, several possible career choices were generated for me; according to the computer, I was best suited for a career as a security guard. My career-counselor-cum-counterpoint-teacher by the name of one Mr. Rathbone, simply scribbled, “career advice not necessary” on my report.

Of course, I had reasons for my casual attitude towards the test – I was then already accepted into the Royal Academy of Music with a full scholarship two years ahead of schedule. In truth, most musicians I subsequently met needed no career advice, as music is one of those professions where evidence of aptitude and expertise must show itself and be cultivated early. Some 10,000 hours of deliberate practice must have been clocked by the age of 18, according to psychologist Anders Ericsson, for musicians or athletes to achieve the “expert” level.

For someone who has never been on the receiving end of any meaningful career advice, I have given more than my fair share of advice to the next generation in my capacity as a music director over the past decade. As the world of classical music has been evolving quicker than ever during this time, I find myself learning something new about my profession every time I counsel an aspiring musician.

What Music Graduates Do

The notion of being a musician resonates very differently with people of different backgrounds, cultures and generations. The father of the legendary conductor Leonard Bernstein initially rejected his son’s pursuit of a career in music, as he perceived life as a musician to be only marginally better than that of a beggar.

Admittedly though, touring the world performing the Tchaikovsky concerto in a fancy dress or classy tuxedo, appearing on life-size posters and gaining fame and fortune all the while, are the fantasized images of what it is like to be a performing musician.

My first and foremost task is, therefore, to unveil the full spectrum of the diverse possibilities of a music-related career in the context of something called, reality. From my personal network of friends and colleagues who hold a music degree, there are the soloists and orchestral musicians, but also music therapists, arts administrators, musicologists, critics and journalists; DJs, film scorers, song writers and record producers; as well as music teachers at schools and private instrumental tutors.

Do You Love to Teach?

Most who come to me want to be a performer – be it a soloist or an orchestral musician. The reality is that only an extraordinarily fractional small number of music graduates can make a living solely from performing. Acquiring a degree in music – despite having the word “performance” imprinted on your diploma – is almost a de facto path towards a career in teaching.

Naturally, you must ask yourself whether you have the calling to teach, particularly young children and beginners, which requires a level of patience quite different from learning the Tchaikovsky concerto.

Before and above all else, I highlight this inevitable teaching component of the music profession, and strongly urge you to explore and experience working with young children in order to get a feel of what it is like to have a lifestyle that takes you from one home or studio to another, work the somewhat unsociable hours, repeat pretty much the same comments and teach the same old Suzuki tunes over and over again. Imagine, also, doing this six or even seven days a week, for as long as your working career is, and where there will be limited room for career advancement or professional development.

Condoleezza Rice was a music performance major; and in her sophomore year, she attended a prestigious summer festival where she realized that, though she was good, she was not good enough to have a performing career. She said, “I just don’t want to be a piano teacher,” and changed her major after that summer. The rest is, as they say, history. She went on to become, among other job titles, the Provost of Stanford University and the US Secretary of State. What foresight.

Due Diligence

Just as a financial adviser is obligated to inform his clients of all potential risks before signing them up for an investment product, I feel equally responsible to present my rational analysis of the profession, probably influenced (some say, corrupted) by my year in business school.

After all, dedicating four years of your life to study something in such depth, not to mention the rising costs of university education, is undoubtedly the most substantial investment a teenager can make. So how can you not perform a due diligence, learn about its return-on-investment (ROI) and potential risks?

Market Environment

I once invited Professor Michael Friedmann of Yale University to speak to my students at St. Paul’s on the topic, “Opportunities and Challenges for the Aspiring Musicians in the 21st Century.” Frankly, I do not recall much of the content of his presentation, except the fact that he spent the entirety of his talk exclusively on the “challenges” part. Ever since, I have been collecting stories and articles, mostly about the growing list of bankrupting orchestras and record companies. These articles have now become mandatory reading assignments for my students. I also keep a copy of Robert Flanagan’s “The Perilous Lives of Symphony Orchestras” on the bookshelf, which illustrates the structural deficit and struggles faced by orchestras with concrete data, just in case any strong-willed individuals like to challenge.

Supply and Demand

The number of graduates in professional fields of the likes of law, medicine and architecture are somewhat calculated and controlled in accordance to the law of supply and demand. As a result, those who are good enough to get into these university programs are almost guaranteed a promising career prospect. For the field of music, there are approximately 400 students graduating with a degree in music (undergraduate and postgraduate) every year in Hong Kong, compared to around the same number graduating from medical schools. Is there really such a demand? Do we need as many performing musicians in the workforce as we need doctors in Hong Kong? While this question may be oversimplified, I nonetheless present you with this hypothesis: there are more music graduates in the world than it needs, for your own debate. At the very least, it should motivate you to practice harder.


Presuming that most music graduates go on to become private tutors, I do not worry too much about them not being able to make a living, at least in Hong Kong. Some indeed do very well, so long as you are passionate about teaching.

As for those wanting to be a performer, I salute them; but at the same time, they must understand that the odds of going to a music school and landing a steady orchestral job or launching a solo performing career upon graduation is not unlike a student going into a law school and expecting to be a supreme court judge. The only difference is that you do not hear about bankrupting supreme courts!

The “Amateur” Option

It is usually at this juncture of my career talk that I also throw in a few anecdotes of personal friends who “jumped ship” from the profession of music to others in search of greener financial pastures. I do not judge, neither should anyone, those who choose material substance (or simply put, stability) over the arts. It is a matter of priority in life, and a decision that everyone is both entitled to, and must ultimately make. Before committing to the profession of music, you must be sure that there is absolutely nothing else you either want to, or can do to make a living.

While you may find life without playing music unbearable and unimaginable, doing it to make means meet is a different matter. Music is something you can pursue very seriously as an amateur; and being an amateur does not necessarily infer a sub-standard of expertise or yield a lower level of enjoyment. It only means that you do it out of love and not depend on it to pay bills. In fact, the pleasure I derive from playing with amateurs is often times greater and purer. Journalist Alan Rusbridger dedicated a year of his life to master Chopin’s First Ballade on the piano while keeping his daytime job as the editor of the Guardians. This fascinating journey was documented in his book, Play It Again – An Amatuer Against the Impossible, which provides both inspiration and reassurance that music enriches the lives of “non-professionals” no less wonderfully and magically.

If you have the capacities and interests in other fields in addition to your inclination towards music, I recommend you to explore those other areas with the same due diligence, or the option of pursuing a double degree. If, in the end, it is another discipline you decide to pursue, you can still choose a school or a city where there is greater exposure to music and access to a great teacher. In investment term, this is called, having your portfolio diversified.

The Intangible Return

By this point, students are normally as drained as they are awe-struck by my seeming pessimism and apparent deterrence that arises from the due diligence.

“So, you still want to be a musician?”

If you can look me in the eyes and say “yes” with determination, then I am truly happy for you. “Good!” I would say, “because I have yet to speak of the intangible return.”

I do consider myself to be extremely blessed to be doing what I love for a living, and as creativity expert Ken Robinson would say, I have found my element, “where natural talent meets personal passion”. Why should I be denying such pleasure to those who come to seek my advice? For, what other professions…

  • allow you to dedicate yourself to something greater than life, which can describe the indescribable?

  • ·bestow upon you both the privilege and responsibility to safeguard some of mankind’s greatest accomplishments as in the masterpieces by the likes of Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms?

  • bring you such immense gratification in the act of the work; and at times, you just don’t want it to end?

  • bring such rush of adrenaline that you both love and hate – a relationship that leaves you always wanting more?

  • empower you to make a stranger’s day brighter without the need of words?

  • are there where you would discover more pleasure each time you repeat the exact same work?

  • are there where trust and friendship are shaped and displayed by such things like a rubato?

  • bring you to different places and cultures where you’d still be able to communicate, in the deepest sense of the word?

  • are there where it is a norm to get together with your colleagues and work overtime for fun?

  • reach so deep inside you that you could shed tears of joy and sorrow at the same time without knowing why?

  • use the verb “play” to describe their work?

I am grateful to be a musician (and to be a teacher too, for that matter.) So, knowing what you know now, you want to be a musician?



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