Music Beyond High School: The Diversity of Non-Professional Opportunities and Activities for Adult Musicians

Mike Lawson • String Section • May 12, 2017

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The degree of personal investment required of a string player to gain instrumental proficiency and musical excellence is astounding. For many years, I struggled in mediocrity and frustration.

I watched musicians much more advanced than myself as they followed other careers seriously; not wanting to use their skills and musicianship in a professional capacity.

As most existential variables one attaches meaning to, I have grown through those views in the natural process of aging. I cannot say that wisdom and experience make better my current attitude towards musicians of amazing abilities who are not pursuing music as a career. Given the competitive atmosphere of this community, I am glad to have better odds at obtaining sustainable work.

There are myriad contexts in which music can be found or made. Musicians whose musicianship and mastery of their instrument are inseparable from their sense of a complete identity make its study a focal point as they begin life as an adult. They tend to be self-motivated in the pursuit a career as string players.

There are many students who wish to continue to have access to cherished experiences and relationships music has given them. They are individuals who seek outlets necessary to satisfy them musically, providing them with what they loved about music in the first place. There are some who put up their bows and do other things; often they show up for lessons later in adult life. This is the hardest set of string players for which to find appropriate ensembles where they can thrive and contribute, and belong. But it can be done.

My first experience with a college/community orchestra paired me with my grandmother’s friend who returned to the viola as retirement made more time available. My first mentor and musician/friend came from the unlikely listed players. She had me over for slumber parties to read duets, write impassioned letters to “save the orchestra,” eat popcorn and go for walks. Most important of all, but we could join the local university’s orchestra and musicians. We were inseparable: the oldest and youngest members of the orchestra, both overly passionate, musically alive. and under skilled. It was awesome.

Returning to a stringed instrument after years of neglect is not like “riding a bike.” Of course, when I begin teaching adult musicians relearning their instrument, I have no comparison from which I might determine their original skill level or proficiency. But I can see signs which indicate serious study in the past. which is buried under the many ways the body gets used and bruised over the course of life.

There is something to be said for the unusually talented musician who decides to avoid the professional environment. Opting for the amateur musical communities and grafting one’s experiences into something of their own design is something I observe with joy for those making it happen.

There are many career string players who do projects aside from orchestral work, teaching, and church gigs (et cetera). However, there is no rule against pursuing both. As previous articles suggest, the musician’s time is probably overextended and their bodies taxed as, by necessity, they are constantly participating in numerous and varied paid use of their skills. Additional commitment to musical endeavors is difficult to sustain very long. We want (and need) a break to attend to family and life in general.

This opens a niche for a kind of “pseudo -professional” musical scene. This is referring to musicians of highly advanced abilities who are doing inventive or self-motivated performing in paid or unpaid events which enrich and enhance local artistic presence and culture.

The main distinction between this and career musician projects are both technical and financial. What fascinates me are the events created by musicians who are not relying upon their public image in all things musical. Professionals cannot escape this reality, and so the group dynamic, the pacing, the division of creative input — so many of the ways performances are put together are unique to the characters of the musicians involved. Even if the resulting event is very like those done by career string players, they are not. Any time a professional is musically visible, that visibility affects and reflects their professional lives and, as such, the way we work to create or perform our own side projects.

I would like to discuss some of the ways that moderately skilled players have realistic opportunities to pursue. To disregard the needs of those students who do not excel obviously would feel wrong, since this article is about nonprofessional opportunities. It may be difficult to help a student plan their next musical step (for any level of playing); finding ensembles which are appropriate for their level of skill within the scope of non-professional career music making of quality (or, for some, quantity may be a viably positive factor). As much as we would all like to think in terms of successful employment and secondary education placement, it is not nearly so clean once a person goes into the world and finds themselves struggling with real life responsibilities.

There are many subtle (or not) degrees of un-wellness that can derail a person very quickly if they do not have something meaningful to help them feel capable and bring good experiences in with the troubling ones. I firmly believe that one of the most obtainable social systems of support a musician can access is orchestral or similar ensembles they are welcomed to join. Civic or community orchestras are invaluable for such situations. One can use the musical talent or skills already developed to learn how to develop other skills. Even if they are seemingly small; being expected to participate and show up in a timely manner on a weekly basis can be a huge achievement for some young adults (or even older adults). There are many life skills to be found; all in an environment that can be very healthy with the politics and competitive aspect are removed. I have found, for whatever reason, string players to be very good for each other when the objective of getting together is to make music. There is potential to feel valued, interesting, cared about, and lots of common things to talk about for the organic development of relationships. There are expectations of each player, providing a sense of purpose as well as growth and improvement.

Performing may or may not be a part of the group’s purpose, but if so, then there is something to talk up that you have going on that most will respect. There are some individuals requiring considerations other than the standard: playing demanding symphonic literature, high levels of technical and musical quality, being in the best or most reputable organization. Sometimes it is that the general level of playing is more accessible and within a comfort zone, allowing them to enjoy the experience and start playing with more confidence.

And then, unfortunately, there are those with little control over the matter. None are immune to the tides of life; some which do not allow for participating in an orchestra at all.

In general, I am amazed by the ways people find to include music as an important and fulfilling part of their lives.

Continue Playing Your Instrument as an Adult

Usually volunteer orchestras can be found in moderate to large communities which will welcome you into the fold. With a few exceptions, regardless of the region you are wishing to infiltrate, the fact that you play a stringed instrument will be in your favor and your participation received with some degree of enthusiasm.

Some places to look for local ensembles include:

• Church orchestras

• Community college orchestras

• Local women’s music clubs

• Civic ensembles comprised of a variety of professionals who have substantial musical contributions to make, but never pursued their instrument past the education environments.

Additionally, there are usually a good number of teachers who work full time at local schools enriching young minds and young musicians. Many are unable to fit the decidedly strange professional orchestral schedules into their lives, but want to make music of comparable standard and literature.

Performances in College/University

It is often possible to audition for the orchestra in the music department of the university you are attending even without being a music major. There may even be minor scholarships available which require your participation in the orchestra every semester. This is a great way to pay the bill at the school bookstore, or for dormitory housing fees etc. and find the most convenient and appropriate ensemble to continue music in a somewhat serious capacity.

Performance Opportunities

There is no rule preventing nonprofessionals from accepting the occasional gig here and there if everyone is comfortable with the difficulty and nature of the job. Most musicians who are good at sight-reading and taking charge of situations in a flexible and have prepared musical resources for the requested instrumentation are well-suited to make some decent money playing weddings (and other functions).

If you have no experience to draw from, I would suggest finding someone willing to allow you to “shadow” them for the entire process of a job. (such as. communications, preparations, contracting, assuring musicians’ pay, handling outdoor agreements and, finally: determining the musical selections with the bride or their wedding planner/coordinator).

Non-Orchestral Environments

There are many different types of groups in which string players do well.

• Join a “band;” whether subbing in for an album, a specific concert, or as a regular member, a stringed instrument can add depth and flexibility and nuance to just about any genre: some of the most popular recording artists have their own string players who can enjoy the popularity amongst the classical world as well as those who enjoy the style being performed.

• Play with a friend at an open mic night at local bookstores, coffee shops, and bars.

• There are festivals of various natures in which one can wander around and join pickup groups playing together in clusters throughout a large outdoor space (bluegrass festivals are great for this). They tend to be open to the public and musicians. People bring their lawn chairs, blankets, coolers, and instruments for an afternoon and evening of music-making which is 100% about having fun and is a single-day event, or a weekend camping type festival that is a once-a-year affair.

• Summer camps. Specifically, Suzuki summer clinics and festivals are provided around the country for all ages and all ranges of skill. These are flexible and often can be a family vacation if you have family members or children who play an instrument. Choosing to shift away from the professional and academic culture can be conducive to socially and creatively rich experiences.



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