Advising Student Musicians on a Career in Music

Mike Lawson • Commentary • May 8, 2019

Share This:

There comes a time in some student musicians’ lives when they give thought to pursuing a professional music career.

The very notion of embarking on a music career can be daunting since the field has a reputation of being fiercely competitive, not to mention that it has attached to it that infamous cliché of “starving musician.” Still, it might be said that few careers are as satisfying as a music career, and for students with a passion for music, the obstacles are not a major impediment since they can envision doing little else except something that involves music. But for most of those considering a music career a prime question is: So how do I get started?

For the high school or college student musician, the band or orchestra leader is often the student’s most important liaison to the professional music world. Barring a family member, relative or friend who is working in music, student musicians usually do not have much in the way of connections to the professional musical world. In such cases the school band or orchestra conductor becomes the de facto contact. The conductor is formally educated and ostensibly has spent much time performing in or leading ensembles. Indeed, through the extensive training and experience the conductor has had, he or she can be a fountain of information and an astute guide for the aspiring student musician.

While school band and orchestra conductors may not have advising as a formal part of their duties, most are happy to offer advice or share information with students who are considering a career in music. They can be a valuable source of information for students who are unsure if they should pursue a career in music, or, if the students know they would like to pursue a music career, what kind of career.

The school music educator might want to start off by having a brainstorming session with a student considering a music career, discussing ideas and asking questions such as:

• What do you think you’d like to do in music and why?

• Have you done any research on any particular career or careers in music, and if so, what do you know about them?

• Are you open to any other music careers, and if so, what might they be?

• Have you spoken about your music career ambitions to anybody in the music field?

• How do you think you’d go about pursuing the music career you’d like to have?

• Would you want to pursue a college degree or even a more advanced degree in music?

• How important is money a factor in your career decision? (Many music careers don’t result in wealth or other careers can yield greater income.)

• What back up plans would you have if a music career didn’t work out for you?

• Do you have the passion to see a music career through?

• Have you discussed your music career ambitions with your parents, and if so, what do they say? Having students think about questions you ask or being a sounding board for ideas they have might help them more realistically evaluate career options. Of course, students are young and are not bound by any decisions they might now make, but an open discussion can help them look ahead in a practical way for the time being. Music can be a great career but some of its areas are very competitive or hard to get jobs in, while still others may not result in wealth or even career stability.

Students wishing to pursue a professional career in music commonly seek to do so in the following fields: education; performance; composition; arranging, orchestration, or scoring; musical theater; music journalism; music business; and music technology. Thus, as an educational professional, you may be expected to provide advice in any of these fields. Of course, we all come to the plate with our own individual experiences and special areas of interest, so we can’t possibly know everything about everything in music or be an expert advisor in music outside our particular areas of interest or expertise. But, as a general rule, you can help students by helping them help themselves by suggesting they:

Do research on music jobs and opportunities. Research is fascinating as you can find something that can lead you to another thing and so forth, all of which adds insight or ideas not thought of before.

Broaden their musical horizons. Exposure to all types of music can be beneficial and eye-opening. Encourage your students to attend concerts or expose themselves to music in other ways.

A music career is generally all about the music so attending concerts or listening to recordings either via an online streaming service like YouTube or on a physical recording is one of the best educations (and inspirations!) a student can have.

Reach out to others in the music field. It’s good to get many people’s points of views so the student should try to get many people’s advice and opinions on careers they are interested in. The student should then take what he or she thinks is most valuable from all the advice and forge ahead accordingly. The student can even try contacting celebrities as a response from a musical hero can be very inspiring. Using social media or other means, students could try contacting performers or others, or try reaching them through their representatives, such as their personal manager, booking agent, or record label whose contact information may be found online or elsewhere.

Stay informed and up to date. Many areas of music have trade publications and reading them is a great way for students to find out what’s going on in an area they want to pursue and get ahead.

Talk to their parents. Parental advice goes a long way (not to mention the folks pay the bills). In my music business classes at Manhattanville College, most of my students want to pursue a career either as a performer or a songwriter, or to work behind the scenes in the music business. As part of their classwork they have to read Billboard magazine (the trade publication for the music business) as well as subscribe to free online newsletters such as Music Business Worldwide and Digital Music News. Trade publications are chock full of information and can be a great learning resource, and there are trade publications for most areas of music. I tell them they should read publications with three things in mind: for news (so they can learn), for entertainment (as they should enjoy reading these publications since they love music), and most importantly, for “What can it do for me?” Repeat, for “What can it do for me?” (That’s how I emphasize it to them.) As aspiring talent or businesspersons in the music field they need to make all the connections they can. I tell them to “read between the lines,” to see if they can apply what they read to their own career goals and glean contacts or leads that can possibly further their careers. For instance, they may read about a person or company that is in their desired field who they can go to for a label or songwriting contract or a job. I tell them to take notes on what they read and use the information to make contacts now or in the future. It’s a constantly ongoing process but one which can yield life-changing results if they stick to it. And it shouldn’t be too much of an endeavor if they are really passionate about pursuing a career in music. Once they start contacting the people or companies in their notes, they should keep a log of when they sent letters or made phone calls as it can help them know when to follow up on their queries and also provide an orderly overview of their searches.

To help a student get started or keep a focus on a particular career he or she is considering, you may want to ask the student to write down a career path for a career he or she is interested in pursuing. This would just be a basic blueprint and could change radically over time, but it can be a good starting point to get moving in the right direction. It’s never too early for a student to start looking into what a particular music career is about or to start making contacts. As mentioned, reading professional publications for potential contacts is also important and there are music publications for many different areas in music so the student should find out what publications or online sites there are and start reading them and taking notes. The rewards of a music career can be great, but because it’s so competitive one needs to be actively engaged in pursuing it.

As a student advisor you should ask yourself: How can I best serve my students? How can I edify myself further to help edify them? You may want to do some research yourself or reach out to people you know who could provide career guidance or contacts for your students. If a student comes to you for advice and you’re not entirely clear on what to say, perhaps you could refer the student to a fellow professional musician who may have more experience in that area than you, or to a former student who is now, say, a hip-hop producer which is what your inquiring student wishes to be.

Do you belong to a professional association where you might know someone who could be of help? Could you refer the student to any kind of networking event? You may not always have answers to questions your students ask or contacts that could help them with their career aspirations and that is fine as the music career field is broad and diverse, but if you know who or where to refer your students to then you have served them well.

The Latest News and Gear in Your Inbox - Sign Up Today!