Post Music School Blues: Embrace the Struggle

It’s every creative thinker’s dream: get out of the routine of school and release all of your passion and talents on a public eager to embrace you in all of your innovative glory!
Ah, to make a living free to think and dream and play. Most young artists want this so badly that they’re blind to the notion of giving up despite having colossal obstacles. Stockpiles of debt, little freelance pay and zero prospects for the future can’t get in the way of passion! Would you be happy doing anything other than nurturing your artistic energy? The bitter truth is that, as artists, we’re irrational; we rake up $50,000+ in student loan debt and live in the most expensive cities in the world only to hang on by a fingernail as we stubbornly continue to pursue a career path that just might make us five whole digits a year. Oh the denial as we routinely practice our auto-grin and ardently positive response-behind-clenched teeth when someone asks, “How’s the performance world treating you?”

DebtIt’s so easy to blame the system: the government for slashing arts funding; or universities for their lack of proper preparation; or the unfair, over-saturated field; or… enough!
What about you? For decades, there have been testimonials out there about the difficulties a performer faces, so why act surprised when, guess what? It IS actually difficult! Here’s a hint: the vast majority of performers aren’t financially comfortable when they start their careers and they remain that way for a long, long time. Finding your place in the performance world is an extremely slow process especially in this day and age where there are more talented artists than ever before. Even artists who are lucky enough to find constant work still need to live quite judiciously and from paycheck to paycheck. The good news is that if we ask the right questions no matter what point we are in our careers and actively seek to answer those questions with determination, then the probability of opening new doors and gaining new perspectives enhances exponentially.

So…what are the questions? Here they are in no particular order:

1. If I’m creative and a hard worker, can I develop another skill?

Turn your second passion into a part-time or full-time job – the beauty of being a creative thinker is that you can think outside the box. Turn half the energy and drive that you’ve needed to master your art and put it into something else. Be proactive in your dreaming and come up with a concept that makes $50 in one weekend. Turn that $50 into $100 and so on until you get a grasp of your alternative market. This can all be done while still nurturing your craft. We’ve encountered many artists along the way who have come from non-performance backgrounds – from the world of retail to the medical field and everywhere in between.

think outside the box2. How can I engage my network?

Your teachers, mentors, family members and friends are there for you. Being in a school environment is quite different from the outside world as your support no longer stays on top of you; YOU need to stay on top of them. No more handouts. Ask the right questions and be honest with them, and you’ll find that they’ll have many helpful responses and might even have answers you are looking for. Don’t stop reaching out to them – they’re your life lines!

3. How diligent am I with practicing, learning, and growing?

Let’s say that concert pianists have to practice four hours a day, like Stephen Hough, to keep up their chops. That’s quite a chunk of time. As performing artists we often make excuses that take us away from practicing. Egocentrically, we rely on our talents making them crutches instead of wings. We reprioritize our schedules to surround ourselves with that which comes easily. Diligence is hard and so is mastering and exploring technique. Be true to yourself and to your art. Hint: turn off the TV and forget about the social networks that don’t connect you with the world of performance (keep using Opera Pulse of course…). Refocus on practicing and rewards will resound.

4. How can I become important to the performance world? How can I get the world to listen?

Exposure is the key here both online and within your own network. First make sure that when you’re ready, you’re creating your own buzz across the web. YOU have to be your biggest fan. If you’re not, very few will want to listen. Actively update your performance profile and share insights on social networks. Seek new ways to promote yourself and always keep in contact with your own network. Church gigs, weddings, funerals, birthdays and bar mitzvahs are a great way to earn extra income, gain exposure and make NEW contacts. Encourage everyone to “follow you” if they like your performance during an event.

carry-your-debt5. How can I create more value in the minds of my employers and colleagues?

There are a lot of insincere people in the performance world. Don’t be one of them. Always be true to who YOU are (sweet, sassy, sour) and people will appreciate the honesty. As is the case with any any job or classroom, leave the drama at the door and be as courteous, grateful, and positive as possible. A smile goes a long way. Your colleagues want to work with people with these traits and, for sure, so do the people that are paying you (and might want to do so again). CONNECT what is unique in you with the character/music you portray.

6. Do you know how much money you want to make as an artist? Do you know how much money you have to make in order to make a living?

This is a question that most of us either avoid and/or have a skewed opinion about which is influenced by the success of our teachers, fortunate friends, celebrities, and even family members. Let this one sink in – and sink in REEAAL good: MOST ARTISTS SUFFER! It ain’t easy; you have to want to be an artist so badly that you’ll give up just about everything to achieve it. Sacrifice everything only to suffer? Yep. Romance and family might have to be put on the back burner; nearly 100% of the people reading this who have made the decision to become an artist will merely “get by” financially. Many of us will have to rely on outside income to pay the bills. In order to “get by” in a big city, you need to make $28K+ per year PRE-tax. If you have student loans or debt, you’ll need to make more. Your budget will be incredibly tight. Happy hour with friends will happen but with noticeable repercussions. Those new shoes you’ve had your eye on? Forget about them. Movie tickets? Better get to know Netflix and Hulu (unless, of course, you have a strong relationship with your network).

If you can be happy doing ANYTHING else, go and do it!

Although parts of the system are to blame for the lack of opportunities in the performance world, artists can really only point a finger at one thing: THEMSELVES. You can’t change how many professional opportunities are out there, but what you can do is make your own opportunities for self-growth and preservation. Working hard, staying committed and answering the right questions are pathways to success as an artist. Such success is weighed by the ability to dream and create everyday, yet get by relatively unscathed financially and emotionally. Embrace the struggle because through it comes more genuine connection to your craft.