This is why I retired from classical music.
Mixed signals, a change-resistant business, and realizations that life is greater than music
My first clarinet instructor in high school was of Italian descent, and when he met me, he saw I had an Italian surname. Despite being only 10% Italian, it turns out that I've acquired an Italian last name thanks to my paternal heritage. After I told him that, he waived his hand and said, "Never confess that you are anything other than Italian." He was an intense man who was renowned among my classmates for being intimidating, as evidenced by a remark he made about me to my face during one of my first lessons: "You suck." Despite his well-deserved reputation in the community, his teaching manner did not appeal to me. I'll never forget one thing he said to me over and over again:“If you can imagine yourself doing anything else besides clarinet, do that instead.” He was speaking of how to make a decision about my career path, and I found his perspective deeply disturbing. I had many interests, and although music was chief among them, I couldn’t deny that I could see myself doing other things.
Throughout high school, this tormented me. I was always frightened of making a mistake, of taking clarinet too seriously or not seriously enough, of giving up when I might have had a lovely, fulfilling life in music that I would never have known about if I hadn't tried. As a result, I pushed myself to devote myself to clarinet as completely as possible. "You're going to make it," my freshman year instructor said. I heard words of encouragement from parents, friends, teachers, acquaintances, and even strangers. "You have a promising career in music ahead of you." "Isn't clarinet like money to you?" Although these comments were usually encouraging, and my teacher’s comment was framed with more pragmatism, I took all of the comments to mean that the stakes were high.
I befriended a fellow clarinetist at a summer music academy while I was in high school, and he told me on several occasions, "I make it as a professional musician or my life is finished." He may come out as theatrical, but I've always thought his comment perfectly represented how high the stakes were.
Despite the fact that I believe everyone in my life meant well when they encouraged me to pursue a career in music, nearly none of them had any idea what being a professional musician required. Of course, they expected it to be difficult, and it was. But difficulty was never an issue.
The issue I discovered was that, as much as I enjoyed music, the professional world of classical music was not providing me with the career opportunities I desired.
This became evident during my three years at an orchestral academy, which is regarded as one of the most progressive classical music schools in the country. Like a full-time professional orchestra, my colleagues and I performed numerous concerts every week. When I first arrived at the academy, I was immediately concerned by the fact that every year, less and fewer people were attending classical music events in our nation (opens PDF, see page 12).I would sit on stage looking out at audience members wondering who they were and why they came. When the concert hall was full, I wondered why. When the seats were almost completely empty, I wondered even more. I loved music because of the connections it has the potential to make among people, and I’d never felt so disconnected from our audiences.
I wanted to be a part of making classical music more accessible and inspirational to a wider audience, since I'd witnessed how this music could touch people of all types if presented in the proper manner. I began developing new concert forms based on audience-first design principles, in which the creative team prioritizes the audience's experience while making decisions. The notion was that by doing so, we'd be able to find more engaging forms for certain populations. Although this technique may seem reasonable, it is not the standard in classical music. The music is usually chosen first, followed by the concert style (which is usually a regular traditional format), and finally, the concerts are promoted to audience members.There’s little thought given to who the audience is and what they might find to be a fulfilling experience until the concert is already planned.
I was given multiple opportunities to create my own concerts via the school, but I was not properly supported during the planning process, and I discovered that the majority of the staff was averse to my ideas, many of which they thought odd or even radical. Along the way, I had to perform a lot of ego-stroking, especially for the academy's creative director, who summoned me to his office after watching the show's popularity and lectured me for doing something under his watch that reminded him of "daytime television." He then adopted the concert format I designed and incorporated it in the academy's regular season, which was both surprising and not surprising.
As I pursued a new, more successful approach to arrange performances, I discovered that the powers that be in classical music either didn't know how to show up and support genuine change, or they just weren't interested. I didn't get the impression that anyone in a position of authority was interested in delving into audience engagement issues and finding actual answers. Simply said, the audience was not a focus. Instead, the focus was on twisting facts to entice contributors so that leadership could collect enough money to go through the season and then do it all over again.
When I recognized that I couldn't solve this situation on my own and that I was risking my life and health for something that wouldn't give me the results I wanted, I finally accepted to myself that it was time to move on.
Since ending my career in music, I’ve moved into a completely different field of work, one where if we don’t serve our customers adequately, we’re toast. It’s a pressure I always wished classical music would have upon it — where serving the audience is front and center. Maybe then, it would have been a better fit for me.
When I consider why I want to share my experience, I consider younger musicians who are unsure of what they want to accomplish with their lives. Many others, like myself, are nervous and sad, attempting to find their path after learning that their musical profession is not providing them with the fulfillment they had hoped for.
You are not alone, fellow musicians, if you are pondering a career shift. Even if you're a fantastic musician, it's fine to move on. Find a friend who will help you think things out.Trust that the people who love you want you to be happy, no matter what. It’s not easy, and people will question you, but it’s possible to find a happier and more fulfilled version of you on the other side of a career in classical music.