Utilizing Musicians’ Skills in Alternative Careers

Volume CI, No. 9September, 2001

Melissa Bennett

The opportunity to work at what you love – making music – is an extraordinary gift. But it is a profession that often pays so poorly that you may find it difficult to make ends meet. The good news is that musicians who decide to pursue other, more lucrative, professions often find that the skills they have already developed are highly applicable to other work situations.

Despite the loss of jobs to changes in technology and in the music industry, there are still substantial numbers of musicians in the job market. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that there were a total of 255,571 workers in our field last year, and predicts that the pool of music industry workers will grow by 24 percent by the year 2005.

Enrollment in New York City music conservatories supports this prediction; the number of students is growing each year. Manhattan School of Music had more applicants this past year than ever before, and the Juilliard School has seen a steady increase in applications over the last 15 years. The same trend is evident across the country. With less work available and more people majoring in music, the competition for jobs will be even greater.

Ultimately, many musicians find they must turn to jobs outside the industry to make ends meet. Some work for temporary agencies, where they may feel bored, demeaned or stifled creatively. Some resist doing anything other than working in the field for which they are trained, to earn a living. And there are also musicians who look down on colleagues who earn additional income in an unrelated field, or who leave the stress and uncertainty of the profession altogether.

My experience in working with musicians has repeatedly demonstrated the valuable skills that musicians possess as a result of learning an instrument – skills which carry over into other professions in countless ways that can be highly fulfilling:

Musicians are perfectionists. Having spent years focused intently on mastering an instrument, they develop high levels of patience, self-discipline, determination and self-motivation – qualities most employers value highly.

Musicians often work well with others. Developing the ability to get along with others in music ensembles involves skills in cooperating, collaborating, compromising and, at times, conforming to the group – skills which are essential in any profession where you must sometimes deal with difficult bosses or co-workers.

Musicians develop excellent leadership skills. As a section leader, conductor or in chamber music ensembles, where the role of leader switches, musicians become comfortable in “leading the pack.” A keen sense of leadership can help you succeed in many other professions.

Musicians tend to be flexible. Working at night, traveling (which may require coping with stress and exhaustion), and performing in a variety of settings where conditions are often less than ideal, force a musician to adapt to the environment. This training is remarkably helpful when working in chaotic environments or in jobs that require you to respond to crises.

Musicians develop versatility, creativity, poise and good stage presence. They learn to deal with the stress of performing and being judged by others – a test that many people without musical training would have extreme difficulty handling. Playing an instrument or singing is deeply personal, which can make negative judgements even harder to take. But, having learned to face these challenges, many trained musicians find speaking in front of a group relatively unthreatening.

Many musicians are good with their hands; some become ambidextrous. And many composers and arrangers now use computers to create their works. These types of skills carry over very well in a job market where technology is becoming ever more important. For example, many pianists have such amazing technique that the processor cannot keep up when they type at a computer keyboard.

Musicians are frequently sensitive and have a keenly developed ear. You must be highly tuned in to your own performance when practicing, and must constantly listen to others when you rehearse and perform. These listening skills are imperative when dealing with other people. In fact, they can also be helpful when working with machinery, since the technician can sometimes only tell by listening when something is going wrong.

No matter what you choose to do to earn an adequate living, you will constantly be using the skills outlined above. There are also many music-related occupations that require your knowledge – including, but not limited to, music therapists, teachers, instrument repairers, tuners, copyists, booking agents, concert managers, music publishers, music store owners and managers, salespersons of sheet music, records and musical instruments, disc jockeys, sound and audio technicians, music librarians, and radio and television announcers.

Whether you find a job in one of these fields or decide to go outside the industry and enter another profession altogether, you may be surprised to discover all the rewarding ways you can carry your artistry with you throughout your journey.

Melissa Bennett is currently a Social Work Intern in the Musicians’ Assistance Program. She is a graduate of the Manhattan School of Music, where she trained as an oboist.