Because of my teaching positions I often deal with students and/or parents of students who are concerned about the economic viability of a career in music. This is a legitimate concern in any field, but music perhaps more than others. Compounding the dilemma for the students/parents is the fact that the most obvious models for a career are millionaire superstars who appear to have won some sort of life-lottery. What are the odds that any particular young player will become the next big thing?
The truth is that the chances are pretty slim, and if your goal is to be a rock star, be prepared to be disappointed. The odds are stacked against you, and if you are among the very lucky very few, you will likely find the career disheartening. Does this mean you shouldn’t even try? Definitely not! You probably won’t succeed, but if you don’t try you definitely won’t succeed. And you’ll need to try as if your entire life depends on it. BUT, if you are like most people, and do not become the next Adele, or if you are a guitarist, the next Pepe Romero, don’t feel as if your life is over. The key thing here is to have a practical back up plan. This doesn’t mean that you have to study computer engineering or accounting, “just in case”. What it does mean is that you’ve looked at the variety of things that a professional musician does to survive, and you’ve learned how to do them and have reconciled yourself with becoming just another musician who teaches or does whatever.
Wait a minute! Did I say “just another musician who teaches?” There is no more noble nor rewarding an undertaking than passing your knowledge on to the next generation, so really, should teaching be your mode of earning a living you should consider it a privilege. It may not be as much fun as performing, but it is deeply gratifying, and as stable as any job can be nowadays. And if you just don’t see yourself teaching, you could look into entertainment law, music management, recording arts, media composition (writing music for video games, advertising, TV, movies, etc.) or music therapy.
OK, so what if you are like me, and as much as you can reconcile yourself with a career that doesn’t involve millions of adoring fans you still feel that you must perform. The answer here is that you must diversify your skillset.
What got me started on this train of thought was my practice last night. After spending an hour or so practicing a contemporary classical piece that I’m learning (Fantasia by Troy Gifford) I went on to practice some choros that I’m working on with a guitar trio. The choro is an urban popular form from Brazil, similar in some ways to U.S. ragtime music. The group is putting together a few sets of this music with the intention of performing. This isn’t the kind of music I’m really known for, nor is it what I originally set out to do when I became a professional guitarist, but it’s one more skill that helps me stay active as a player, and I’d have to say that I’m really having fun doing it.
Over the years I’ve sat in on jazz gigs, played in the pit for numerous regional productions of Broadway musicals, and accompanied singers. In fact, I just accompanied my daughter last week. She sings with a local burlesque company, and she asked me to help out by playing guitar on a song by Dave Matthews. And about a month or two ago, I contributed a rather Mexican sounding guitar solo to a country song – The Ballad of Pancho and Lefty – being recorded by a band from south Florida, The Mobile Homies. (BTW, this is one of my son’s bands. And he is primarily a heavy metal guitarist. We are a musical family!)
The key here is that the more you can do as a player the more opportunities you will have to play.