Sarah Derbyshire: Pursuing a Career in Music

Sarah Derbyshire MBE considers the breadth and possibilities available for a career in music.

Choosing to follow a career in the arts has been quite a hot topic recently, not least in response to the Education Minister’s rather doom-laden remarks that choosing to study humanities can restrict career choice. For so many of us in the music and music education profession, this was a heart-sink moment. With an accumulation of academic research findings which demonstrate the positive, lifelong impact a musical education can have on a young person’s development, it was truly depressing to think that such views can still hold sway, and at such a high level in our society.

For students considering a career in music, or even wondering if a choice to study music might narrow the options available to them, it’s potentially even more worrying. The advice that they receive at school is crucial. But there are many ways in which the music profession can help, and is increasingly keen to do so. The more contact young people have with music organisations and professional musicians, the more chance of discovering new possibilities and career paths in the industry.

First of all, I think we should recognise that the most obvious images of ‘success’ in the music profession can be profoundly off-putting to young people. Traditional approaches to instrumental teaching often hold up the example of a soloist on the concert platform, or membership of a worldclass orchestra, to motivate pupils and emphasise the need for practice. But in a sense, we are setting those pupils up to fail, as the likelihood of their achieving such a goal is remote, if only on the balance of probability.

And what if you don’t recognise yourself in such an image? Not everyone wants to be the focal point as a soloist or lead singer on stage. Equally, the life of an orchestral player might be seen as being somewhat anonymous and without its own creativity. A lot of young people will read into the largely mono-cultural faces on the classical concert platform an exclusive club with no place for them. Many are enormously attracted to the buzz and excitement of performance, but don’t see themselves on the stage itself. So it’s important that we find ways to give young people some direct experience of the music industry, and put to bed some of the misconceptions that lead them to discount music as a career option.

The opportunities to do this are increasing, not least because Music Education Hubs are now based on a model of partnership between schools, Music Services and music organisations. This is helping to encourage a broader range of opportunities for young people to develop their playing and performance across a wide range of genres – folk, jazz, world, contemporary, as well as classical music. Many organisations offer fantastic workshop and creative projects for schools, delivered by professional musicians. Just working closely with musicians, experiencing new ways of interacting and playing as a group, and creative decision making – can be an eye-opener for young players. It also gives them a chance to find out about the various routes into the profession and how the life of a musician in the 21st century is a lot more varied and multi-faceted than might have been the case, even 20 years ago.

Aside from performance-based programmes, there are apprenticeships, paid internships and volunteer opportunities enabling young people to get a taste of the production and business side of the profession. Boards and management of music organisations are beginning to develop youth councils and opportunities to shadow management or curate specific programmes. All this is a sign that the music profession – both subsidised and commercial – recognises that young musicians are the key to a future in which our musical culture genuinely reflects the creative vitality of our society. They are the composers, sound engineers, digital creatives and performers of tomorrow. They are the audiences, the choral singers and amateur orchestral players. They are the teachers who will bring their own love of music to a new generation.

To find out how you can take advantage of these opportunities for your pupils, contact your Music Education Hub, or just get in touch with a music organisation in your area whose work you admire. I can guarantee they will be delighted to hear from you and will want to find ways in which they can support your aim to give young musicians the best chance of a fulfilling career in music.

Sarah Derbyshire MBE

Written as part of Ensemble Philharmonic