Taking the last bow of my final recital was the most amazing feeling. Years of sweat, tears, late-nights, long hours, practice room naps and pure obsession had culminated in this moment. My inner vibe was totally Bill Gates and friends celebrating the launch of Windows 95. It was the best.
The next day was a little different though. Reality had hit. I honestly had no idea what the hell I was going to do next, and it was truly overwhelming. I had choices though: I had applied for honours and prepared audition repertoire for music schools overseas - those who had spoken to me longer than five minutes at any point in my undergrad knew I was literally obsessed with going to America.
Yet regardless of those plans, that decided to scrap the overseas study dream and apply for journalism.
So how does someone go from being so totally obsessed with one thing, to not wanting to pursue it at all? Yeah, I really have no idea. My brain is a big fat mystery to me. The best answer I can give is that it was a total gut decision, and I knew it would be right.
For this reason, I found explaining my decision to others unexpectedly difficult.
Maybe it was because I knew I had to answer all the goddamn unanswerable questions. Every person I told would ask “why?” or exclaim “but you’ve invested so much time!” or incredulously shout “but you’re so good at it!?”.
And the point in which I realised something was wrong was when a guy on Tinder asked me why I had “given up on the dream? :P” after I briefly mentioned it. Absolute deal breaker. The tongue emoji fixes nothing. Take note boys.
At first, I had this need to constantly justify myself. I’d be like, “yeeaaahh I’m studying journalism now…BUT I’m still practicing and playing and seeing gigs and doing everything I was doing before I promise!!!” Of course I knew in my heart that I didn’t need to justify my decision to anyone, but I realised I had defined myself by my music for so long that of course this change would’ve seemed totally out of character for those who didn’t know me for anything else except my music.
On top of that, I couldn’t shake the feeling that some in the music world would consider me a “failure” for not pursuing performance. It’s true though. By their definition of “success”, I had failed.
Throughout the degree, I was surrounded by large groups of music students who would excessively praise a select few people for being outstanding players. The most “successful” stories to come out of university were the ones of those who made it overseas or became successful performers. On top of the pressure to succeed from peers, there is the faculty who say you can only be a world-class performer if you’ve done 10,000 hours of practice before the age of 20. What a deadline. When in an environment like this, of course you are likely to feel a little bit inadequate if you’re not “made” to be a performer.
But what about all the other people who’ve left university and made something of themselves in a field other than music? I rarely heard about them. Maybe that’s why I freaked out when I finished my degree - I knew I didn’t want to perform or teach, but I hadn’t heard positive things about anyone graduating who chose not to pursue those goals, so I felt like choosing something else would make me a failure.
I think we need to start looking at a music degree like an arts degree, because the skills you learn in a music degree are just as diverse as in an arts. We don’t ask every arts student if they want to be a lawyer like we ask every music student whether they want to be a teacher or a performer. And hey, both degrees don’t really give you much in terms of job security, so there’s no harm in likening the two anyway.
You could argue the skills developed in a music degree are even better. In a music undergrad, you’re constantly organising, working with others, communicating and disciplining yourself in a very intense environment. And for those pursuing a performance major, you have to perform by yourself in front of a panel whose job is to criticise every aspect of your performance. That takes balls. There are so many skills from a music degree that can transfer to any other profession, and can make you good at any other profession.
Therefore, there’s nothing to be ashamed of if you don’t want to pursue a performing career, or even a music career. It really wasn’t for me, so I changed. But I don’t consider myself any less a musician. We don’t have to box ourselves in.
This isn’t meant to delegitimise those who want to pursue a performing or teaching career. I say absolutely go for it. If somebody tells you you’re not capable or it’s not a stable career, there’s no reason not to pursue it if it’s what you want.
I guess there’s always some sad sod out there who will have something negative to say about anyone regardless of what they decide to pursue, which reaffirms the idea that there is no right or wrong way to be a musician. Every single career path that comes from doing a music degree is as legitimate as the other. Even if you end up studying something completely different, or you create an awesome hybrid career which combines music and some other passion you have, you still did a music degree and it is completely valuable and you are using those skills to be successful in another realm.
As corny-to-the-point-of-vomiting it may sound, the best thing I have learnt from my degree is to trust myself. It’s not right to feel pressured to pursue a particular path, or to feel like a failure for pursuing another path. And it’s totally wrong to judge other people’s choices. If a musician decides to perform less and teach more or change career paths, they have not failed.
We see full-time performers as representing the absolute pinnacle of what a successful musician is, but we need to stop thinking like this. There are so many other musicians doing amazing things in and out of music who are not performing full-time and would still consider themselves “successful”.
I guess this opens up discussion on how one defines “success”…but you can decide that one for yourselves!
So in conclusion, there’s nothing wrong with choosing to pursue a music career or not. The only thing that’s wrong is not doing what you want to do.