Alternative Careers as a String Player

Earlier today I had the pleasure of giving a talk to young string players (grades 7-12) about, as the title of my post says, “Alternative Careers as a String Player” during the IUS String Clinic 2010.

The idea was to emphasize the kinds of careers a number of string players currently (or in the recent past) have pursued as well as talk about some of the string playing traditions that exist worldwide and emphasize that the training they are getting as young classical musicians is perfectly suited for a lateral shift in musical direction if that is what they wish or if that is where playing music takes them.

I didn’t say much about the idea that classical music in the US is declining a bit as I didn’t want to focus on some of the negative aspects of a shrinking musical market with a surplus of specially trained musicians for that market (though I did speak to a couple of the older kids afterwards about this). At the same time I almost feel that by not doing so I do a disservice to the kids. it’s really the main issue I have with teaching and what almost kept me from returning to this line of work.

What is nice is that I can tell people that if they want to go into music, then they have many alternatives rather than the three limited choices–the trivium as it were– of full-time ensemble performance, teaching (at either the private level or University level), or freelancing.

Granted, many of the things I did talk about piggy back on the freelance world–at least until you can create your own ensemble(s) as well as the need for it.

And not that it’s any easier to do that–starting practically from scratch (this is an overstatement) can be a daunting task so I needed to demonstrate that there is precedent for some of the string playing careers about which I was talking. And to go back to my interview with Colin Ramsey about creating a contemporary cello career that is far easier to do in this day and age than it would have been in the past due to technology and the ease with which information can be seen and consumed by musicians.

At some point I should probably formalize some of these issues and work on having a much more prepared presentation that I can offer to whatever institutions that would be interested as I believe thinking about career choices in these ways is far more fruitful than stating something to the effect of:

“Well, you’re going to need to work really, really, REALLY HARD and there’s still no guarantee that you’ll get that orchestral position/university position/string quartet position. Sure, you can probably go into an arts related job with your idiosyncratic knowledge–maybe a job on the staff at a concert hall or with a Symphonic organization, but your love of playing music is not going to guarantee you get to do so at any more than a part time hobby.”

Which can be the default answer whether or not the performing positions are available. I just happen to think they are available–just not necessarily here (in the US) or here (in traditional and orthodox performing organizations). That there seems to be a growing classical music scene outside the US and Europe hasn’t been emphasized enough and neither has the fact that Western instruments (especially strings) have been part of any number of Art music traditions in various countries outside of the Western world for up to a couple hundred years in some cases.

The fact that with this surplus of Classically trained musicians in the US has shifted what kinds of instruments/instrumentalists you’ll find in a “band” setting or non-Western Art music setting is just another sign of how musicians who love the instrument that they have trained with for what usually amounts to decades will find a way to perform on that instrument even if the Classical Music market can’t fit them in it.

Which just shows us that for some folks, if there’s a will to play, then there’s going to be some “unorthodox” way to play if the normal channels don’t pan out.

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