Prominent international music competitions – no matter your opinion on them – share one invaluable prize in addition to the money: publicity. Recently, British pianist Peter Donohoe defended international competitions on Facebook, alluding to an absence of an “effective alternative” to a competition win for young musicians hoping to make a career as an international soloist. Granted, it is difficult to downplay the importance and value of such a ‘break’ as a competition win, however the fact remains that competitions are not, and will never be, for everybody, and of course, not every competitor can win.

So what next for the young musician who aspires to a career in classical music, but for whom a competition win – or, indeed, an international career – is simply not a reality? Thinking purely in terms of numbers, hundreds of musicians graduate from music colleges in the UK alone every year. A mere fraction of that cohort would exceed the amount of competitions available for entry worldwide, meaning that even if all of these instrumentalists and singers wanted to compete, they could not all expect to win. Besides, given that competitions of this type exist as a platform for aspiring soloists and recording artists, and not for those wishing to follow an alternative path, it is important to consider the decisions young musicians make when building a music career in which international stardom does not feature.

Research into music graduates’ career moves continues to suggest that conservatoire courses do not provide adequate career preview to their students, with many young musicians experiencing feelings of uncertainty and anxiety about their future career as a result of holding a very narrow view of ‘musical success’. The following ‘Ten Top Tips’ for young musicians are taken from the ‘Letters to my Younger Self ’ website, being run as part of a wider University of Leeds funded project exploring young musicians’ lives and their experiences of building a music career. The website is a collection of anonymous letters written by musicians, containing the careers advice they would have liked to have received when graduating from music college.

1Value all of your musical skills: The largest component of any conservatoire course concerns your instrument: the one-on-one time you spent with your teacher, classes with the other members of your department, not to mention all of that time in the practice room. It’s easy to forget about all the other musical skills you have, but further down the line it may be your skills in improvisation, arranging, workshop leading or teaching that enable you to carve your own unique path as a musician who can do more than just perform well.

2Don’t write off teaching work: Many young musicians dismiss teaching as a ‘cop-out’ job, or a nuisance pursuit that eats into valuable practice time. Recent research into Australian music graduates revealed that although initially 18% of students envisaged themselves doing any teaching work after graduation, the very same cohort spoke of the value of teaching work in their portfolio five years later. In one letter on the website, a pianist writes of being removed from “a bubble of loneliness and fear” by teaching. Additionally, when freelance playing work can be unpredictable, flexible teaching provides a financial security that affords artists the freedom to explore other musical avenues. However, much like competing, teaching isn’t for everybody either, so if you really do just dislike children, perhaps teaching work isn’t for you after all!

3Embrace entrepreneurship: If you are hoping for a solo career, but don’t have the financial backing and publicity of a competition win, it is still possible to do a lot of this work yourself. So much of a music degree is very transferrable: the hours spent in the practice room mean that you have drive and motivation, the diary-tetris of practice room booking and chamber rehearsals mean that you know how to organise yourself. Don’t forget that all of the people that you met – whether socially or musically – will have helped you develop those all-important negotiation skills.

4Enjoy your freedom: After four years (or more!) at conservatoire, it’s normal to feel slightly lost, especially without the guidance of a regular teacher or the support of your peers. During this transitional period many young musicians begin to relish their new-found freedom to pursue other musical ventures that they may not have had time for during their degree. Graduation can be seen as a great opportunity to re-invent yourself musically, which can lead to career options you may never have thought possible.

5Let go of others’ opinions: Musical freedom can also apply to the way in which you think of others. Many graduates in the study spoke of other people’s opinions and how they might affect their decisions, but the overwhelming message was to have courage in your own convictions despite others’ opinions. Who cares what people think about you playing in a musical on a tram? If it feels right to you, go for it!

6Forget about point-scoring: It may seem obvious, but it’s always worth a mention: whatever you got in your final recital or orchestral excerpt test doesn’t matter anymore. One of the musicians in the study sums this up beautifully:

‘Yes it is possible to get 87 for an audition one day and 43 for a technical the next, but it doesn’t make a tiny bit of difference to your life from now on. Stop being so bitter.’

7Value social connections: Whether or not your connection is via music, people are important! Musicians emphasise the importance of supportive colleagues, and having these people around to play music and share ideas with will help you remain challenged and motivated. Additionally, don’t forget that maintaining good relationships with other musicians who you meet can lead to further work opportunities, so don’t be afraid to swap details.

8Have a life outside of music: If you’re aiming for a career in music, then it’s safe to say that music is important to you, but make sure you think about doing things other than music. Not only will it give you a break, many graduates stressed the musical benefits of a life lived outside of music as well as within it.

9Don’t neglect your physical and mental health: Current research continues to question the sustainability of musicians’ work-life balance, implying that freelancers frequently risk their health by taking on more work than they can do. Despite the temptation to say yes to every opportunity you are presented with, make sure that you remain realistic as to what you can achieve, and take care of your body while you are at it: after all, if you are exhausted, stressed, or both, you aren’t doing your best job!  For help and advice about musicians’ health please visit BAPAM or Help Musicians UK.

Above all…

10Believe in yourself! Every single musician who wrote a letter to their younger self included some sort of motivational statement, which implies that everyone remembers a time of uncertainty when reflecting upon graduation. Remind yourself that it is normal to feel this way and that it won’t be easy all the time, but you can give yourself the best possible chance by keeping going and staying open-minded.


Kate Blackstone graduated from the University of Manchester in 2010, and the Royal Northern College of Music in 2011, from the demanding Joint Course. Since then she has forged a successful freelance career as a musician, combining a busy teaching schedule with frequent performances on both piano and clarinet, her principal instrument. She is now undertaking her second year of PhD research at the University of Leeds, supported by the Stanley Burton Scholarship. Her project is exploring the ways in which music college graduates manage their transition into the professional music world, the first phase of which is a publically-available website containing musicians’ career advice to their younger selves.