Sergei Rachmaninoff sitting beside a grand piano

Sergei Rachmaninoff

“Music is enough for a lifetime, but a lifetime is not enough for music.”
–Sergei Rachmaninoff

I expect that all of us music lovers concur with Rachmaninoff – our passion for music continually nourishes our souls.

But does a rising musician’s love affair with music necessarily translate into a career?

I see plenty of reasons to conclude that music careers can be practical choices for many young musicians. I also recognize grounds for questioning whether some students are sensibly gearing up for today’s music profession.

In this 3-part post, I’ll zero in on what makes a career ‘practical,’ contrast the new music economy with the old, and index strategies that students can use to thrive in the real world.

What Are Practical Careers?

First, for the sake of concision, I’m going to focus on careers in music performance and education. I won’t delve into the numerous other occupations in the music industry, but I’ll touch on how they interweave in the lives of performers and teachers.

Second, I use the term “career” to denote a person’s primary occupation and source of income. As opposed to a job, a career entails long-term skill development and reflects a person’s chosen profession. A practical career is one that has utility and can be realistically achieved and sustained.

So, practical careers:

1. Deliver products and services that are in widespread demand
2. Generate ample income
3. Are plausibly attainable by those who pursue them
4. Are interesting if not fascinating to their practitioners (otherwise they’d be difficult to sustain)

Now, let’s look at those four criteria through the lens of music careers:

4 Features of Practical Music Careers

1. Demand: Even though the music industry is transforming, there’s an immense, ongoing demand for music products and services. To the tune of billions of dollars annually, people snatch up recordings and concert tickets, enjoy music in all forms of media, and purchase instruction, scores, and instruments. As one example, a 2003 Gallup poll found that 54% of U.S. households included at least one person who played a musical instrument. Check.

2. Income: Musicians who are hard-working, versatile, and well-prepared make decent livings; they also glean abundant psychic income. The cliché of the starving musician doesn’t apply except to artists and educators who fail to build up their skills or engage with multiple aspects of the marketplace. Check.

3. Attainability: Here’s where we run into problems. Student musicians who forge inclusive skills and gain knowledge of the music business can single out careers in which they’ll succeed. But, in the U.S. alone, there are about 100,000 music majors enrolled in colleges each year. A little less than half of them concentrate on performance; a similar number study education. Added to that are the throngs of independent young musicians who hope to “make it.”

Given the shortage of school music teachers, the education majors are pretty much set, at least initially: those who excel in college obtain gainful employment. Performance students who acquire comprehensive skills, whether they pick up their skills in traditional programs or not, can also put together prolific careers doing a variety of things such as performing, gigging, recording, private teaching, contracting, etc.

Unfortunately, over the course of my three decades in the performing and teaching professions, I’ve observed that countless students aren’t stockpiling the entrepreneurial know-how they’ll need to satisfy their creative ambitions and prosper economically. Many aspiring musicians proceed under the naïve assumption that musicianship, a college degree, or a teaching credential is all that the profession requires of them. I’ll return to these issues in my second installment. Provisional check.

4. Interest: A love of music alone probably won’t enable a musician to maintain a career. Up-and-coming performers and teachers must also cultivate interest in and dexterity with the compound facets of the music profession: technology, collaboration, entrepreneurship, self-care, performance development, and so forth. Are music schools commonly emphasizing all of these topics? I have my doubts. Provisional check.The Musician's Way book cover

Next Steps

In Part II of this post, I list guidelines that help students gauge their preparedness for music careers. Part III explores ways in which rising musicians can gather the tools they need to put together rewarding lives in music.

For more on this subject, see “Embracing Career Challenges” and “Boosting Creativity” on pages 299-314 of my book The Musician’s Way. Also visit the Music Careers page at

Read Part II

© 2009 Gerald Klickstein