Ask any working classical musician what the most difficult part of their work life is, and you’ll rarely hear about the music. In some ways (but not all), the music is the easy part. It’s the business of music that’s the hard part. This is because a working classical musician is much more than a professional performer. We’re entrepreneurs juggling multiple priorities and projects at once. As we like to say, our professional lives are where musicianship meets entrepreneurship.
Practicing is one part of the day
As students and young musicians, we think practicing is going to be the focus of our days. Here, the old saying “there are no shortcuts to the top” rings true: you simply have to put in the time to learn to play your instrument and to reach a level of mastery where the physicality of the instrument becomes secondary to your ability to express the music through it.
This takes years and years of solitary practice, of auditions and lessons and rehearsals and performances. And even once we attain mastery, we have to maintain it, which takes dedicated hours each day (a minimum of three for Debra and five for Paul). When we add rehearsing and teaching into our days, we might have our instruments in hand for seven, eight or even more hours.
Entrepreneurship in classical music
Classical musicians choose a number of paths to make a living in this profession. Some of us win jobs in symphony orchestras or opera orchestras. Many more of us, though, have built careers where we’re doing a number of things at once, from touring to teaching and recording, all while scanning the horizon for more opportunities—for next season and the future. This is when musicianship meets entrepreneurship, because being entrepreneurial is all about seeing an opportunity and putting yourself (and your music) in the right place at the right time. But it doesn’t happen alone. It takes careful observation and research, and lots of networking and creativity.
Sometimes opportunities find us, through referral or a past connection, but more often they come because we go out seeking them. Because of this reality, a day in the life of a classical musician starts to look a bit more like a day in the life of a sales and marketing professional. We’re looking for opportunities (in marketing they’d be called leads), and then we hope to strike up a conversation with the presenter or the performing space or the event director. We want to make a meaningful connection to the market that the presenting organization or event serves: the audience. Because a working classical musician lives in the present as well as in the future, this kind of activity is a constant for us. We’re living through today but we’re well into planning what’s on our schedules later in this season, the next, and the next after that.
We’re also juggling the day-to-day chaos as our schedules shift—something familiar to any entrepreneur. In non-COVID times, this might be because a student needed to move a lesson, or a rehearsal got rescheduled, or the sound check at a touring venue needs to be pushed back, or because our session at the recording studio was changed. Even the most organized among us can’t completely control the chaos, no matter how hard we try.
In addition to managing our daily and long-term schedules, we have to make time for marketing and communications (email inboxes, social media channels), administration (like reviewing contact details or negotiating payment), and planning (selecting repertoire, commissioning composers, and choosing the pieces for our next recording project).
Nothing compares to live music
Of course, this is the familiar rhythm of a life in music before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. For the last 15 months, though, we haven’t been able to be together with our listeners. The pandemic has silenced the world’s concert halls and opera halls. It’s emptied our performing spaces and put us all on Zoom. Simply put, the catastrophe of COVID has hit the performing arts, especially classical music, in devastating ways, from the loss of livelihood to the lack of human connection on which we musicians thrive. While today’s technology makes human connection in the time of COVID-19 possible in so many ways, it’s just not the same for music. You simply do not have the same experience as hearing music live, in a hushed and darkened concert hall.
This is what we live for, the moments of transcendence and magic that we can only share with our audiences live, in a concert. It’s what we wake up thinking about each day, and what we keep in mind as we work through the business of being a classical musician. It’s what we hope to share with each of you as we emerge from the last year into brighter days ahead. What’s the one thing about the last year we might hope to hold onto? More time to practice.