9 Reasons for Classical Musicians to expand beyond Classical Training
The culture of classical music education is slowly changing in response to the growing demand for classically trained musicians who can offer a broader range of skills. Rather than wait for the slow-moving wheels of academia, l encourage classical musicians to consider going beyond their training now.
Training gained in other musical worlds has added to my career while enriching my appreciation of classical music. What drives you to develop your musicianship? Is music a means of personal expression, or a means of developing connection between yourself and others? If so – what would it look like to dig deeper into skills and idioms you have little to no experience in, and see what they can do for strengthening your ability to connect with others and express yourself through music.
Here are nine benefits that I’ve experienced by expanding on my classical training, and nine reasons for any classical musician to consider going beyond theirs.
More diverse professional opportunities and income streams
Musicians with broad skill sets have greater freedom and flexibility in how they earn income. This takes shape in the variety of projects and opportunities that open up when you embrace the possibility of exploring new musical territory.
I’ve experienced so many benefits from being able to cross between different styles or communities, one of the biggest benefits being in how I can respond to different musical situations. Versatile performers can play in various ensembles without being dependent on sheet music created for that instrumentation. Versatile performers can respond more effectively and communicate more easily with a wider range of musicians that come from different backgrounds and trainings. Versatile performers can build connections across multiple different musical communities. They can also perform different styles of music, with a wider choice of bands or ensembles, in venues outside those typical of orchestral and chamber music.
Most classical musicians are not trained to compose, arrange, or record, and these are all additional streams of revenue available to any musician with the training. Teachers with broader skills can teach more things to more students, and they can provide workshops to groups of students. Being a musician can mean so many things, and exploring can only strengthen ones’ musicianship.
2) Variety of artistic choices
Many orchestral musicians play a limited repertoire, some of which repeats itself with the seasons. A common complaint I’ve heard from orchestral musicians attending our workshops is that when they show up for orchestra or chamber gigs, sometimes the repertoire is not as varied or challenging as they would like.
It wasn’t like this for most of us when we were in conservatory. College and pre-college is an exciting time when classical musicians are inspired to dive deep into the music all the time. The problem is when school ends and the real world sets in. What many don’t realize, or possibly what many have simply forgotten, is that there is always something new to explore and challenge yourself with.
Perhaps some classical musicians continue to enjoy this level of intensity and inspiration in higher-level orchestral, chamber, or solo careers. But for many, the reality of an orchestral or freelance classical career can be monotonous.
I remember observing this when first being hired to the Columbus Symphony Orchestra as a college student. Everyone in school seemed so driven and inspired, yet many of the orchestra musicians seemed bored or even annoyed that they had to show up for yet another orchestra rehearsal for a piece they’ve played many times before.
Some musicians do one thing very well and they get a lot of joy out of it. But, for others who seek variety, imagine how excited you would be coming to work every day if it was a new challenge. Since I do so many different things all the time, when I show up to play classical music I feel like it’s a party.
3) Connect with more people
Surrounding ourselves with the same people can feel like being in an echo chamber. Going outside the classical music world enables you to connect with other musicians and audiences. Each time I have expanded my personal network with other types of musicians, it has enriched both my worldview and perspective on music.
For example, when I was 15 years old after 10 years of studying classical violin, I started playing bass and guitar in rock bands with my friends. I quickly realized there was a whole world of musical knowledge. It changed my listening, expanded my musical vocabulary, introduced me to the possibility of improvisation, arranging, and composition, inspired me to investigate harmony… It also helped me connect with different audiences, namely my peers who were listening to rock music.
Later when I was incarcerated from age 20-24, playing different types of music helped me make friends with a range of convicts and these friendships helped me survive in prison. Although many prisoners appreciated hearing me practice classical music on the yard, playing other styles of music with other prisoners allowed me to connect in a different way. When I was playing tunes that people were familiar with from their background it opened them up to feel more comfortable experiencing the music from mine.
These personal connections also helped me develop a sense of personal identity and forge my worldview during a formative time. This was in large part possible because I was interacting with people very different from me, coming from different backgrounds and a different musical understanding.
Many musicians talk a lot about the need for social justice work in general, but fail to look deeply within their own musical communities specifically and see the ways in which the spaces they interact in are segregated, inaccessible or exclusionary. More musicians can have a positive influence by crossing the proverbial railroad tracks. This will arguably make us better citizens of the world overall, not just musically, and it requires a mindset of deep and selfless listening – much like the practice of music-making.
Inertia keeps most of us within gated communities. It takes proactive effort to break out and connect in meaningful ways, especially if you don’t experience an anomaly such as a prison term. After I was released, I noticed how easy it felt to slip back into what was known and comfortable. I had to force myself to make an effort to put myself in situations that felt uncomfortable, a constant practice of growth and living the reminder that growth has no endpoint. In recognizing what we don’t know or can not experience, we develop greater empathy for the world around us, see others in a more humanized way, and influence others to do the same.
4) Personal and Artistic Growth
The ability to be flexible and open-minded to new training methods and techniques ultimately translates into the personal realm as well as the musical. When you flex your psychological muscle to step outside your comfort zone consistently, you create a habit of being willing to take risks and learn new things that will benefit other areas of life. Improved musicianship can be the gateway to an improved human.
I find that pushing out of my comfort zone is what helps me to grow both artistically and personally. I believe it’s been important to add skills, join new networks of people, try different types of music, and reinvent my career as my life naturally evolves.
Classical musicians, while they have strengths in some areas, typically have deficits in others. One of the biggest surprises to me is how the new skills I’ve learned outside classical training have helped me become a better classical musician. Although some of my technique on the violin isn’t what it was when I was 19, my listening, rhythm, awareness, and overall musicality have evolved in a way that gives me significantly more confidence as an overall musician.
Many people continue to grow and develop within the context of a narrow field or focus, and I recognize the depth of musicianship of those who
Again, many people continue to grow within a context of a narrow field or focus. If that’s you, cool.
(6,7,8, 9, and 10 Advocacy, Creative Self Expression, Sustainable musicianship, Fulfillment, and Impact-)
5) Advocacy and Entrepreneurialism
When you are forced to advocate for the value of what you do, you’re forced to value what you do. Or, as my dad used to tell me, “You’re worth whatever you charge”.
Many musicians complain about “arts advocacy” but they don’t walk the walk. Advocacy requires practice and it takes learning skills.
Building your own concert series, festival, or outreach programs, playing in the street, filling a private studio, enrolling patrons, creating sponsorships, selling albums – these types of entrepreneurial activities enable you to create self-sufficiency and build an audience.
The process of offering a service as a musician, charging for it, and enrolling others into the value it brings them, is widely underestimated and misunderstood: Music will not exist without resources. Musicians can’t make music without tapping into resources. This is why entrepreneurialism and the creation of art/music must be considered as intertwined.
So many musicians who work for a boss or organization have never had to cultivate this type of hustle, and often this correlates with an attitude of complacency, powerlessness, or lack of responsibility or personal accountability. Complaining about the institution or orchestra you work for, complaining about the state of arts funding, complaining about how the times are changing, complaining about the new generation, or just complaining that your town doesn’t support or appreciate good music, is not productive to or effective for the reality of the industry we work in.
Complaining doesn’t have the power to enact change – Go out and create an audience yourself.
Of those that are unable to do this, many are left to audition for a job and then complain afterwards about the politics of why they didn’t get the job, or if they did get the job, complain about the job itself. And this is not just specific to classical music. Musicians across the board tend to suffer from a lack of business chops.
I would argue that we can learn alot about advocacy outside of classical music training. It’s partly why over the past several years I’ve created various services around advocacy and entrepreneurialism for musicians, and have personally coached over 100 professional musicians in building their sustainable careers.
6) Creative Self Expression
While classical music is undoubtedly a creative endeavor, there’s a different type of creativity at play when improvising, arranging, or composing. Some other traditions of music encourage these types of creativity.
Expressing myself creatively, and discovering a unique sound or voice is a hugely satisfying outcome of studying beyond classical music. Whether or not many people resonate with my “sound” is irrelevant. Some people will and some people won’t. That’s okay.The fact that I have a sound is rewarding in and of itself.
What if your musical sound was as identifiable as Vivaldi?
If developing the craft and art of playing an instrument centers the development of technique, by discovering all nooks and crannies of an instrument and discovering all the ways in can produce sound, then developing the art of musicianship should center the development of a deep understanding of music – not just in one genre, by cross genre.
7) Sustainable musicianship
Sustainability is a buzzword these days. Sustainable farming. Sustainable living. I am interested in the concept of sustainable musicianship – This includes two ideas:
For educators and students: the idea that someone can continue to make music throughout their life, after school, whether or not they make a living through music.
For Pros: the idea that a musician can sustain their lifestyle through music, over a lifetime. This includes the ability to adapt as your life naturally evolves in different phases and places.
This is an issue for classically-trained musicians because they often depend on external things to make music such as accompanists, conductors, sheet music, air-conditioned recital halls, etc. They may also depend on external employers, which may seem reliable but may not always be as flexible to the needs and dreams of an individual. By learning to be more musically independent, we can make music under more circumstances and share it more freely with family and community. We can find reasons to be more engaged with music on a regular basis because we are literally creating the circumstances to create music for ourselves. We can change our primary mode of working: for example, while my primary mode used to be touring I eventually found the lifestyle unsustainable and was able to transition to working more from home. This shift was important both for family and because I wanted a change in lifestyle, and would not have been possible if not for the freedom of being able to adapt and shift as the course of my life and needs changed over time. Sustainable musicianship looks like flexibility and a willingness to develop a relationship with music that isn’t limited or confined, and allows for growth and change.
8) Contribution and impact
Contribution allows us to maximize impact. When we are playing more music, we are reaching more people. Classical music is failing to reach more people in part because of these limitations it places upon itself. It’s so expensive to fund an orchestra! It’s also largely inaccessible, and it was found in a 2012 study by the National Endowment of the Arts that only 8.8% of people in the U.S. had attended a classical music performance in the previous year. https://www.cnn.com/2016/05/29/opinions/classical-music-dying-and-being-reborn-opinion-albright/index.html
It is far less expensive to fund a solo violinist and a solo violinist can make a big impact in any environment. Again, I learned this when I used to practice on the prison yard. You could feel the mood lighten. In fact, all the musicians playing music on the prison yard created a palpable feeling of comfort, trust, and overall humanity.
It makes sense when you consider that prison is widely described as a dehumanizing environment. The presence of music infused humanity. A lot of the convicts who played music used whatever they had on hand. They beat on picnic tables or free styled rhymes. They sang a cappella. During one of my first times in solitary confinement, I heard a convict singing unaccompanied in a cell nearby. It hit me like a ton of bricks. The sound of his voice allowed me to emotionally process what otherwise seemed intolerable.
As unlikely as it may seem, these lessons about music learned during prison still stick with me. The experience taught me that I could find more organic ways to engage with music, connect through music, and that there was a deeper purpose for being a musician. My classical training gave me many things, but it also failed to teach me some of these things. Now, 20 years later, I’m more sure of this than ever.
Music is spiritual. Music is human. We easily lose and regain sight of these things.
For any musician to thrive, to be fulfilled deeply throughout their career, it’s essential that we hold onto and cultivate our sense of value, purpose, and passion. There is no doubt a classical musician can have all of these things, but it was going beyond the classical walls as they stand currently that helped me to do this, and ultimately it helped me sustain a deeper passion for classical music as well.
CAMIE BRAINSTORMING bc of something a classical person said to me once
“There’s so much to classical music I could keep getting deeper and deeper i never need to check anything else out”
The deepest musicians are able to understand music beyond genre / across genre
At a certain point you have to rely on external knowledge to take you into new directions
There will always be classical musicians with a greater depth than you, you can set yourself apart from them by branching out into things they may not consider
***link to other scholarship
***make direct changes
***orchestras are dying lol
New section. It’s not just me, it’s been studied and written on before many times over