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A Musician’s Dilemma

A Musician’s Dilemma

In 2004, the New York Times published an article titled “The Juilliard Effect: Ten Years Later” that traced 44 musicians who graduated from the Juilliard School and compared their careers ten years after graduation. Needless to say, the results were a bit disheartening. Out of the 44 musicians, only 36 were traced, indicating that the 8 untraced musicians probably have little connection to their instruments anymore. Out of the 36, only 11 of them had stable jobs in orchestras, and 12 of them had stopped being a professional musician altogether and had gotten jobs in other fields. However, even though this article was published over ten years ago, the difficulties of being a classical musician still hold true for today. Top music conservatories such as Juilliard churn out thousands of aspiring musicians every year, but the opportunities upon graduation are so limited that most are forced to let go of their instruments forever. Classical music has never had a huge impact in the United States, unlike other genres such as pop music and jazz, and for this reason, becoming a classical musician is an inherent dilemma. Aspiring musicians have great passion for music, but at what cost does this passion come? Ultimately, low demand for classical musicians and lack of preparation from the part of music conservatories leaves the majority of top conservatory graduates drowning in debt, with no choice but to quit their instrument and find a well-paying, sustainable job.


While it’s true that classical musicians have always faced this sort of dilemma in the United States, it is perhaps of greater concern today. Every year, more and more competitive musicians graduate from the country’s best music conservatories, competing for a small selection of sustainable jobs. However, every instrument is different in terms of job selection. For example, a pianist will go on a much different path than a bassoonist. Pianists usually aspire to become soloists, but to do so not only requires extraordinary talent but also extraordinary dedication, and only a few pianists actually manage to make a living out of performing. However, because the piano is such a common instrument for young kids to learn, it is easy for the remaining non-performing pianists to become teachers instead. On the other hand, the bassoonist is more likely to quit playing the bassoon. An instrument like the bassoon is really only needed in an orchestra, and bassoonists can only attempt to audition and get a permanent spot in a major orchestra. Combine that with the decline in funding for major orchestras in the United States and what you get is perhaps one of the most tenuous professions. With the sheer number of competitors and the lack of demand, it is not easy to become a successful bassoonist; in the end, it is much easier for the bassoonist to seek another profession.


Music conservatories also do not adequately prepare students for the real world. Students are young, and upon going to a top conservatory like Juilliard or Curtis, they think that they have an automatic pass to a successful music career. Oh you naive music students, you thought that your career was established when you got into Juilliard? Just wait until you get into the real world.  Juilliard doesn’t prepare these aspiring musicians for the real world at all; it teaches them how to play an instrument well. In the real world, talent isn’t even a deciding factor among musicians anymore. What’s more important is their connections, uniqueness, and perseverance. Becoming a professional musician is like creating your own business, and this is something that not enough musicians discover soon enough. Recently, music conservatories are realizing this problem and many schools have been trying to tackle this issue through many ways, whether through giving students exposure to other fields, teaching them what it means to become a musician, or providing them with possibilities in the future. However, many of these young musicians view this as a hinderance. Their goal, especially for violinists and pianists, is to become the next sensational soloist, and anything they do that doesn’t contribute to that goal is time wasted. Then, when they graduate a few years later, drowning in a pile of student debt, their dreams are shattered. Except for the selected few, most of them will not end up with a flourishing career and will have to give up instead.


This is what it’s like to live as a classical musician in a society that seems to be increasingly shunning classical music. So many talented musicians, yet so little opportunities. Given such a risky path to go down, why is it that so many people still do it? Passion. Upon deciding that one wants to become a concert pianist or a violinist in a prestigious orchestra, one has to first know the risks. However, one should not underestimate the power of unwavering passion for music. If a student immerses himself in studying music for four years at a prestigious conservatory, he has learned something that he wouldn’t have learned otherwise. All those hours spent in practice rooms show dedication and self discipline. All the intense music theory learned definitely improved his analytical skills. All the other passionate individuals who share similar interests with him that he met on his journey will also remain a large part of his life. What’s more, he has learned failure. Sure, he didn’t manage to become a concert pianist in the end. But the impact that music has on his life will definitely leave an indelible mark on him, regardless of where he ends up in the future.

About Eric Guo

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