Five Struggles Musicians May Face Throughout Their Careers and How to Move Past Them

Happy Friday! We know the semester is starting for those of us academics, gigs may be picking up, and regular post-holiday life is now in full swing. We hope everyone is moving along steadily towards their goals and that this post from Brass Chicks’ very own Kate Amrine can help if you find yourself in a difficult spot.

The following are five struggles that I’ve found musicians face throughout their careers. Most of these are equal-opportunity offenders, meaning they can affect you regardless or your age or experience level. Fortunately, I’ve included some info on how to move past them so feel free to share with anyone who may need to hear these messages.

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1. Lack of Money

This is the most obvious problem so let’s start with it! Of course, lack of money can hit everyone at various points in their careers but is especially an issue for those of us just graduating school. Especially when not every music school provides us with skills and a concrete plan to make a living in music after graduating, it is extremely important to figure out what is best for us individually and make a plan. In addition to funding projects or music expenses we may have (starting a group, making an album, going on tour, marketing), we all have living expenses such rent, food, and student loans to reckon with. 

Rather than complain about how hard it can be to make a living in music, figure out the best way to do the things you want to do. Maybe that means a day job so you can perform in the evening, or a part-time job with flexibility to teach private lessons in the afternoon. Personally, I have worked many different kinds of jobs – some were great, some were not – but I used them at the time to handle my living expenses so I could focus on practicing, performing, and what I really wanted to be doing. We have all heard about the benefits of having multiple streams of income, and most professional musicians do it: they teach, perform, and often work in other areas as a clinician for masterclasses and more.

In addition to working, the other important thing to think about is saving money! When I was doing my master’s degree at Peabody, I stayed with my parents in Maryland when I was in town for school so that I could keep my rent stabilized apartment in NYC. This obviously saved me a considerable amount of money and I was very fortunate to be able to borrow my mom’s car when I needed it to drive to school. Thanks Mom! ❤

One more money-related thing to think about is quality of life. We have all heard the myth of the starving artist, broke college student, poor musician, etc. But it doesn’t have to be like that. Sometimes people make choices to save money or earn additional money with a day job, extra students, or another option. You might do this for a variety of reasons – maybe you are saving up for a down payment or having a child or maybe you just want to be able to go out to eat more often and have a different quality of life.

Regardless of your personal situation, own your choices and feel confident in them! Believe that you are doing everything you can do to be where you want to be, and be positive and confident that your work will take you there. Don’t listen to other people telling you about the difficulties of being an artist or retelling the stereotypical negative narrative.  You know your situation and you have the power to do whatever YOU want and create your own reality.

2. Lack of Time

This one is another big one, especially for working musicians, teachers, and others balancing many responsibilities. It feels like there are simply not enough hours in the day! But what if there can be?

It can be very difficult to manage practicing, warming up, working out, eating right, having a social life, and teaching. While I am certainly not an expert at this, there is often a way to make it all work out. Do you plan your day so that you know what you are realistically going to do for each hour? Do you have a set of weekly goals and to-do items as well as longer-term goals? Are you able to delegate tasks to an assistant or colleague who may be able to help in busier times? Lastly, are your priorities where you want them to be? Some days are so crazy that it is impossible to do everything, but it helps to be sure to put your “must-do” items first every day. For me, those items are getting a good warm up, maintaining a consistent practice routine, and eating healthy. Another big challenge in getting everything done is accounting for last-minute changes. That brings me to the next issue:

3. Being Flexible

This is one of the first skills I ever learned in New York City. There are SO many things that can change in the daily life of a musician and, if you are stubborn and unable to adjust in those situations, then you will become very angry, be frustrated with your circumstances, and possibly not be hired back for gigs. I am sure we all have many stories about times when things didn’t go according to plan or where we had to adjust. Some cases I have encountered over the years include: travel issues (NYC subway… need I say more?), music being in a different key and having to transpose, no music being provided and playing by ear, the location of a gig changing at the last minute, a performance time getting pushed later so it was at 2 am instead of midnight, students cancelling, students being unprepared, someone forgetting something I needed, and many more. Of course there are times when one or two of these situations or something else will happen and it can be difficult to adjust but, for the most part, I have learned to be flexible. One of the greatest things about many music careers is the flexibility they afford. Being able to play the type of music we want to, create our own hours, choose who we want to play with, choose where we want to perform, and so on is a great source of freedom. With the good stuff, though, comes some bad stuff. How will you choose to deal with it?

4. Being unsatisfied with your place in the music business

Speaking of “dealing with it,” let’s talk about this problem. This widespread dissatisfaction is perhaps the most important one of all. I would venture to guess that every musician has experienced this setback at some point in their careers and will, in fact, probably experience it more than once. The best thing about this problem is that it can happen to anyone regardless of experience level or place on the totem pole 🙂

First of all, there is certainly nothing wrong with wanting to be at a different point in your career. Maybe you are a student and you are tired of taking music history and theory classes and would rather be practicing and taking auditions. Maybe you are a freelancer who wants to move up and do some bigger gigs. Maybe you have a adjunct teaching position but are trying to move towards a tenured position so you can start building a family and feel settled. It can happen to anyone! The key point here is how to handle it. It can be easy to look around and be jealous of other people’s success and situations. Are you going to sit in your position, wallow in your situation, and complain to those around you? Believe me, I’ve tried that and it doesn’t work!

After I finished my undergrad at NYU, I stayed in the city and began to teach and freelance more. After two years of this, I became very frustrated with my place in the scene and wanted to be doing bigger and better things. I knew that, to do this, I needed to go back to school so I handled my situation by going and my getting my master’s at Peabody. My personal experience isn’t here to tell you to go back to school or tell you that another degree is the answer, but rather to show that the solution or a way out of an uncomfortable situation often involves taking a first step that might seem risky or out of reach. Fortunately, there are many resources at your disposal to help you. Talking to former teachers, colleagues, or fellow students for advice is a great one. Buy these people coffee or a meal, explain your situation, and figure out how you can be on a better path. There are also a huge variety of books, blogs (like this one!), and podcasts on every topic from preparing for orchestra auditions to building a freelancing career. Check those out and take advantage of the resources available to you!

Lastly, the most recent time I felt truly unsatisfied with my place in the music business was in September, 2017, when I had finished recording my album and was gearing up to release it. I posted on Facebook asking my friends whether my album cover should be my face or an abstract painting. Of course I got many responses (some helpful and some not), but the best part of that situation was that it led me to begin working with Karen Cubides, who has been unbelievably helpful in coaching me on my career. Don’t be afraid to ask for help or advice when you need it! It might just be the exact thing that you needed to change your position 🙂

5. Feeling unfocused, unmotivated, and uninspired

Honestly, this is something that I don’t experience very often. I do get little glimpses of it occasionally, though. Sometimes after a big performance I come home and I have no idea what to practice or, if I don’t have any upcoming gigs, it can be difficult to get in as many hours of playing as I normally do. I have heard from colleagues that this comes up a lot after losing big auditions and other difficult situations. I am sure that comparing oneself to others who are either the same age as you or doing what you want to be doing doesn’t help this situation. In terms of a solution or remedy to this struggle I offer two suggestions:

First, keeping in mind everything from my previous four points. Are you actively working on the things that you want to get better at? Do you know what you need to get better at? If these are problems for you, start by taking a lesson with someone great and figure out a plan of action! Personally, I have a running list of aspects of my playing I am always trying to improve. Ray Mase recommended that system to me and it has been unbelievably helpful keeping me on track at times where I might have felt lost and frustrated. Sec

ond, remember the WHY! Why do you play music? Go see a concert or listen to some great performances online. I always feel inspired after hearing great musicians play. It makes me excited to get home and practice as well as just simply be a musician so that I have the power to have that same effect on people. This can also be accomplished by playing music with friends. Duets or quintets can be a great way to have fun, make great music, and get back on an inspiring track.

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