Occasional Musician Complex

Are Occasional Musicians Legit?

What makes a musician a “real musician”?  Is it the degree in performance, the full time pursuit of music as a career, or the salaried job in a slightly more stable environment as a professor or orchestral musician? I’ve got the degree in music.  In fact, I’ve got it from one of the best music conservatories in the world at the Eastman School of Music.  Yet, I still doubt that I can really be considered a “real musician” because I have a full time job in a non-music capacity, and I only dedicate my leftover time to gigging, chamber music, and teaching.

Does this make me less of a musician? No, but I often fear it does. I call it my Occasional Musician Complex.

At some point in my life I’d like to make music my full time career. I’m not so sure this is the time for that season in my life. My husband’s in medical school, so I’m the one paying the bills. But still — I am finding fantastic ways to feed the artist inside of me. It is tiresome to pursue a heavy performance schedule after 40 hours of work a week, and it can be frustrating to be limited in my schedule the way I am. However, I allow my music to be a passion rather than a chore, and I pursue it constantly whenever I have the time, money, and energy to truly enjoy it. I am not stressing about my bills. Music is a joy, and that extra gig money I get in the bank helps supplement my income.

For a long time I felt guilty about this. I thought that “professional musician” and “stable income” were not synonymous, that I was somehow not legitimate. I even received one off-hand comment from a colleague suggesting that I was stealing income from musicians who perform full time. Which, I will add, is a ridiculous notion — as many of my gigs at the time were the ones my full time musician friends could not take and specifically recommended me for. Musicians with a talent for music, especially musicians with a degree in music, should be encouraged to pursue their art in whatever way suits them.

The ‘Suffering Artist Persona’ is an Ancient Notion

So here’s what I want to suggest – what if musicians were encouraged to do what made them happy rather than conforming to a certain “suffering artist persona”? Why are we still latching onto the notion that our careers must mirror that of the great composers’ infamous poverty? Many musicians are under the impression that if they’re not creating, teaching, or playing music 24/7, then they are somehow less of a musician. Musicians feel they need to be making it full time in order to gain the trust and respect of those in the music world. This often leaves young graduates from a music school in a great amount of debt, with even greater expectations, and a very small job market to break into.

I am a young adult in debt with a degree in music and a full time job in something entirely unrelated. I can say with certainty that I believe I have still earned the respect of my musician peers by working hard to maintain my skills despite the fact that I am not currently a full time musician. I practice regularly, perform often, and am constantly looking for new musical opportunities. I could not do this without the support of the wonderful musicians around me who build me up, collaborate with me, and call on me for gigs.

While working in non-music jobs, I have also built up my business skills in ways I could not previously imagine possible. These skills translate into my life as a professional musician. I would describe my music career as successful and growing, with breathing room to say no to gigs and the time and money to take a vacation. I am more stable than I ever imagined I would be at my age. It is a blessing and a relief to a young couple with one income to rely on. Music students should be taught that they can be happy, successful musicians and still find stable ways to supplement their income in non-music jobs without losing their musician identity.

The Reality of a Career in Music

We have to face the facts. There are only so many jobs available. For those who do make it full time as musicians, that is absolutely fantastic! For those who cannot for whatever reason, we need to stop teaching them that they are failures and start teaching them that their vast amount of talent is not wasted on another day time job — that their decades spent studying music have not been in vain.

Orchestras are failing left and right, and the music industry is evolving.  It is no longer enough to get an undergraduate degree to sustain a long term stable career in music. Our students are being encouraged to go into debt for a career that will likely not give them the income to pay back their student loans. Many will suffer for their art and end up resenting it in the end. Some may suffer from a debilitating injury, job loss, or burn out. What happens then? Will they even have the basic skills and the resume to get an entry level position in a non-music job so that they have the time and money to continue their music? Musicians are remarkably intelligent people. The discipline we beat into ourselves with hours of calculated practicing translates very well into the real world if we take the time to hone those skills.

I fear for our musicians. I applaud the schools that are evolving to face these challenges. Eastman is one of those schools; its Arts Leadership Program exists to educate students about how to make themselves more marketable for the changing job environment. Instead of leaving the student to fend for him/herself, they give the student the tools necessary to carve out a career. Teachers should encourage their students to participate in these types of courses and get a well-rounded education instead of pressuring them to “only focus” on their music. At the very least we should encourage students to get out of their practice rooms and gain some real world experience with a part time job.

If we find that a vast number of music degree students eventually turn into amateur musicians after college, I do not believe that is a bad thing. Amateur musicians will be one of the redeeming forces in our current musical market. Amateur musicians will dedicate more time, money, and respect to the world of music. They will be the subscribed Symphony patrons, the dedicated parents who encourage their children to practice hard for the lessons, the main supporters of arts education, and the musicians who happily take the gigs full time musicians wish they didn’t have to bother with. They understand the importance and beauty of music. They found it worthy enough to dedicate years to it, and they want to maintain the integrity of music.

As music educators, let us encourage our talented musicians to find fulfillment in making music, whether that is full time, part time, or only occasionally. The pursuit of music is not an excuse to suffer for the sake of being called a “true artist”. A true artist is one who maintains musical excellence, finds joy and fulfillment in their art, and shares their passion with others.


  1. […] musician rather than a full-time musician and the stigma that comes with it in my earlier post, Occasional Musician Complex. While my life circumstances have changed and I can again primarily focus on music, I still find […]

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