Some of Australia’s most respected musicians and educators have offered their advice to school students interested in a career in music. Their advice comes from a range of perspectives and common themes include networking, aspirations, education and training, career choices, versatility, dedication, and hard work.
Everyone has a place. We need everyone. Find your voice and you'll be cool. There's always room. – Phil Slater
Passion is contagious. A passionate performer makes people want to listen. A passionate educator makes people want to learn.
Whenever possible, accept invitations to be a volunteer in the arts industry. Volunteer positions sometimes lead to paid work a few years later. Volunteering also helps to build a network, and networking has become incredibly important in the age of technology.
Pru Borgert is a music teacher and advocate working in the Coffs Harbour area of NSW. She is the Music Council’s School Music officer and works as a consultant specialising in curriculum, teaching resources and music teaching.
Music offers numerous rewarding and worthwhile pathways but perhaps none so rewarding as teaching. Whether your ambition is to be a class teacher or a tertiary lecturer or a private studio teacher, you can become that 'beacon of light', a mentor that encourages, stimulates, nurtures and guides students in their pursuit of a musical dream. As a result, there is enormous satisfaction to be gained by choosing a path in music education, passing on your knowledge and watching your students fulfil their ambitions.
Dr Rita Crews is the President of the Music Teachers' Association of NSW, a senior examiner for both the AMEB and the IBO and Deputy Chairperson of the AMEB [NSW].
My main piece of advice is just commit to your gut instinct about what you want to do as early as possible. For example if you are really serious about being a performer then don't spend half your life teaching private instrumental lessons therefore taking up valuable time to practise, attend concerts and generally get out in the scene.
I decided I would study overseas and this too was a really important stepping stone in terms of staying on an upwards trajectory. I never gave myself time to think too much about what I was doing or doubt myself and I really think that this was a good thing. I remained committed to my performing career and focused on getting better and better - staying open minded always and trying to get as much out of every teacher I was lucky enough to come into contact with.
It was always important for me to make my own opportunities and not to wait for things to be handed to me on a platter.
Claire Edwardes is an internationally renowned percussionist, co-Artistic Director of Ensemble Offspring and two time winner of the AMC/APRA Art Music Award for Excellence in Australian Music.
Unless you are one of the fortunate handful of people to become rich and famous through chart success, the most important survival skill in the music business is to diversify and have many strings to your bow. For me personally, the days of being able to rely on enough work coming in purely for my piano playing, are long gone. These days I work as a singer, producer, piano player, jingle writer, composer, teacher, arranger.
It is also important to be stylistically diverse. Last month I toured with a country band, recorded a pop EP, produced a jazz EP, played numerous pub cover gigs. Aside from becoming more employable, by being a diverse musician you get to meet so many different people and your musical journey becomes a much broader one.
Gerard Masters is a pianist, singer/songwriter and producer. He has led his own jazz trio for many years and performed with Australia’s leading jazz musicians. Gerard also performs and records with The McClymonts, Missy Higgins, Wes Carr and Pete Murray.
Keep at it. To embark on a career in music you need — what some might refer to as mdash; a ‘blind’ bulldog determination. You have to keep going. If you work the hardest you possibly can, no matter how many people fall off the wagon on the way, you will endure. It is important to believe in your product and believe in yourself, and if you work hard, you will. Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters and Nirvana couch-hopped for three years before his friends and family pooled their money to get him an air fare to the Nirvana audition.
Be flexible. The music industry has undergone diabolical change since I started over ten years ago. This means you have to adapt, and adapt quickly. For example, I had a lot of early success with bands utilising MySpace in the days when marketing yourself via that medium as a ‘DYI act’ earned you credibility, and an audience. The tables have completely turned since then. MySpace died and made way for Facebook, and people don’t appreciate being spammed by bands anymore. Bands have had to change their ‘tune.’ Now we focus on the mystery and on quality content. See change as opportunity!
You might start out wanting to be a performer, and end up working in a different area. You might carve your own job from the rubble of the old music industry pre-digital downloads. Who knows, but be open minded, and flexible.
Network. The best thing I got out of my Bachelor of Music degree was the friends and contacts I made. Sure, I became a better musician, but I also learned the value of networking. Help people out, and they will help you. And make real friends, not just contacts. It is important to KNOW everyone. And know everything, read as much as you can about your business, because it is, in fact, a business.
Erinn Swan is the lead singer with Brisbane-based band Streamer Bendy. She has also run a small independent record label, worked as Sony Music A&R scout, and was a founding member of the Australian Youth Music Council.
Be a versatile musician and do a bit of everything, as it is hard to make money in this industry. I have met many people that have that approach. Work up your skills. Don't stop at one instrument. Learn to read music, write music, and improvise. They are all relevant approaches to music and will inform each other.
Everyone enters the music world a different way. For me it was classical music. Never feel like you have to have a specific background to pursue a particular pathway. It is more interesting if you have a unique approach. You are always influenced by your roots.
Always be open to collaborate with people, particularly those with different musical influences from yourself. You can bounce off and teach each other. If you write together, you are also more likely to come up with an original sound.
I was told to never say no to an opportunity. This is very important in the early years, when you are still gathering your knowledge. I was put in a lot of situations that initially made me feel uncomfortable musically, as I had little confidence. I was lucky to have older musicians around me that pushed me to try harder. Before someone put me on the spot and said to me 'Improvise!' I had no idea that I could do it, in fact, I was probably convinced that I could not. You have nothing to lose by trying new things. It is easy to stay in your comfort zone, but it is important that you push yourself all the time.
I spent many years learning other people’s music. It wasn't until I started playing in a band that I truly realised how important it was to create your own music. At first, I found my classical background frustrating and restricting. I then learnt how to use it to my advantage and see it as a skill I could draw upon. Studying others’ music is important, but writing has really freed up my playing, and when I go back to the classical music world, I will have a slightly different approach.
Heather Shannon plays piano/keyboard with The Jezabels. A classical piano student since the age of four, Heather also studied violin through school and continued to study music at Sydney Conservatorium of Music. The Jezabels’ debut album reached #2 on the ARIA charts, #6 on the 2011 Triple J Album Poll, and the band received the prestigious Australian Music Prize in 2012.
Be passionate, practise a lot and never give up, you never know where your career will take you.
Master your instrument but don’t be afraid to multi-skill across music and associated activities; having an understanding of markets, programming, media, finances and all aspects of a music career is always useful especially if you can connect to your specific interests and attributes.
Be clear about what you really want to do. Most musicians end up doing more than one thing, often having more than one occupation, usually because they can’t always make enough through music alone – although plenty do. But above all, music played and practised in any form is good for you which can lead you to lots of fantastic satisfying experiences.
Peter Garrett AM MP was the leader singer in Midnight Oil, one of Australia’s most successful and enduring rock bands. More recently he has been a Federal Government Minister holding the portfolios of the Arts, School Education, Youth, Environment Protection, Heritage and Early Childhood.
This is something Mike Nock says all the time: ‘Let a thousand flowers bloom’. Everyone has a place. We need everyone. Find your voice and you'll be cool. There's always room.
Phil Slater is one of Australia’s leading jazz musicians and an internationally recognised trumpet player. He has won each of Australia’s most prestigious awards for jazz, the National Jazz Award, MCA Freedman Fellowship and Bell Awards, and leads his critically acclaimed band The Phil Slater Quartet.
By Eric Dunan
Just after finishing high school, I went to a trumpet lesson with my teacher Warren Balfour. I told him I didn’t need to be a great trumpet player, because I intended to be a music teacher. Even though I had really wanted to be a professional musician, I decided that dream would be too hard.
Like all my favourite music teachers, Warren was a musician who played professionally while also working as a teacher. Warren looked at me sternly and said, ‘Even if you are a teacher, you have to be an excellent musician.’
I felt quite foolish. Instantly, I changed my whole attitude towards my music career.
Following Warren’s advice, I practiced like crazy and got a University degree in performance. I worked for several years as a professional musician playing a variety of gigs, including R&B, Jazz, Swing, and Classical. It was a great experience — only possible because I worked on becoming an excellent musician.
I have worked as both a semi-professional musician and professional music educator for 20 years. For the past ten years I have run the Wollongong Conservatorium Jazz Program. I’ve been able to continue playing semi-professionally, and have performed with some of the best musicians in the world.
Become an excellent musician. This is the most important advice I can offer to those looking for a career in music. It seems obvious, but a lot of my students forget that crucial element. Yes, you have to be intelligent, have communications skills, and good marks to get into University. But, no matter what credentials you have, you will always still need to be an excellent musician.
Eric Dunan is a jazz trumpet player and Director of the Jazz Program at the Wollongong Conservatorium of Music.
Alex Masso. Published in Music Forum, Vol. 18, No. 3, August 2012, 38-41. Entered on knowledge base 14 May 2013.