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5 Keys to a Successful Career in Music

By Danae Witter | March 25, 2021

5 Keys to a Successful Career in Music

As a young, naïve college student in the early 2000s, I was confident with my decision to pursue a career in music. If I didn’t turn out to be the next world-renowned soloist, I would audition and join the violin section of a major U.S. orchestra or pursue my doctorate and teach in a university. This goal was attainable at that time as the music industry was booming, and jobs were available to those who were talented and highly motivated.

Fast forward 20 years, and I barely recognize the industry, and the change of the musical landscape happened well before the pandemic. Colleagues are without work; orchestras are in financial distress; publishing companies are experiencing massive downturns, university positions are difficult to find, and the private teaching market is inundated with musicians trying to find any way to make ends meet. Yes, I have just painted a bleak picture of the job market. Is it, therefore, impossible to pursue a career in music? NO! Despite a shrinking and ever-changing market, one can succeed and be happy in this industry if one possesses a creative mindset and has unending passion.

While I am no expert, the following bits of advice have helped lead me to a successful path. You may find them helpful while on your own journey:

1. Define your expectations and be realistic.

My goal to become a world-renowned soloist is an example of an unrealistic expectation. While I was talented, I was unaware of the talent pool that flooded the music industry. Of course, every goal should push us to our limits; however, unattainable goals only frustrate an individual and waste critical time. When pursuing a musical career, survey the current trends in the industry or in education if you are thinking about teaching. Knowing what is happening and where things are headed can help you determine multiple paths you could take to be successful. Try to only focus on career options that you truly would enjoy. If you love when that lightbulb lights up when children discover something new, perhaps you should focus on education. You may find yourself obsessed with how music looks on a page, the artistry of the notation. Perhaps you might want to explore the world of music engraving. Or, if you are also into programming and computers, you could explore working for a music technology company. Find what you love to do, and your passion will fuel your fire.

2. Learn to appreciate a variety of work, and be prepared.

When graduating from the University of Southern California, I dreaded sitting through another long commencement speech. After all, I was a professional student, and this wasn’t my first rodeo. However, within only a few sentences, I was on the edge of my chair, listening to words that would forever change the course of my career. The message was simple; adapt to the market and realize you will, most likely, end up doing something other than what you planned. Oh, how truthful were these words! With a doctorate in hand, I was going to teach at a university. Or was I? Within three months, I found myself behind a desk cold-calling to string teachers with hopes of selling their students instruments and bows. This was most certainly not my plan.

To survive in the competitive field of musical performance, you must be willing to juggle a variety of work, as it is rare for a musician to have only one job. Even if you follow the path to becoming an educator, you will still likely perform or teach privately to help make ends meet and to feel fulfilled as a musician. 

While it is advantageous to have one ‘main’ position (perhaps one with medical benefits and a 401K), I know many musicians who are widely successful without it. As you look outside of music for additional work opportunities, I would encourage you to write down a list of your employable skills. From that list, then survey the field and determine where your talents could best be applied. Do you have writing skills? Maybe you could become an editor. Do you have an outgoing personality? Perhaps you would be a great salesperson.. Once you attain experience with different positions, you will  learn what you truly enjoy and find success and happiness. 

To not just survive but thrive, you must also be prepared. It seems like common sense, but have your CV/Resume, cover letter, and recordings (if applicable) ready to go at a moment’s notice. Create documents that can easily be tweaked and adjusted depending on the open position(s). Turn in your materials as soon as possible, as time is critical. Have references prepared. Talk to former professors, bosses, and colleagues that are willing to provide a recommendation at a moment’s notice. Choose a variety of people to represent you, as recommendations are critical, especially if you’re trying to break into a segment of the market that is new to you. 

3. Network and build strong relationships with your colleagues and peers.

Building relationships are crucial to your success. Network early and often. It may seem daunting at first, especially if you tend to be more introverted; however, you are solely responsible for creating opportunities  and advocating for yourself. Music, as a performer and as an educator, is held together by relationships; make them and nurture them.  Establish a strong social media presence and professional site profiles such as LinkedIn. Attend conferences and introduce yourself to anyone who will give you their time. Submit proposals to present, as that, in itself, will provide you the opportunity to showcase your talents in front of a larger group. Send follow-up  emails or handwritten notes to potential employers and show your honest appreciation of their time. Surround yourself with colleagues that will inspire and encourage you as you navigate your way. 

4. Do your best not to burn bridges.

The musical world is a small one. I cannot stress how important it is to not  burn bridges. That boss you don’t like, that colleague who annoys you, that parent who calls to yell at you about how you better ‘give’ their child an A... Think what you may, but try to always take the high road. Don’t allow yourself to be mistreated, but don’t add fuel to the fire. 

5. Have high expectations and meet them.

There are expectations in the music field that we also expect from students. : 

  • Be on time. 
  • Be prepared. 
  • Honor your commitments. 

If you follow these simple rules and always present yourself professionally, many  opportunities will come your way. That former boss (or former student) will provide a recommendation for a new position, that colleague will invite you to collaborate on a new venture, or that contractor will give your name to another agency. You never know when you will run into someone again, so put your best foot forward and avoid unnecessary conflict.

Leonard Bernstein once said, “To achieve great things, two things are needed; a plan and not quite enough time.” I encourage you to sit down and establish a plan. Determine what success looks like for you. If you can’t quantify your success, you will always be disappointed. A plan will gain momentum when  you have a relentless passion for the job.  If you have a plan and passion, you have a recipe for success. Organize, collect your ingredients, and start cooking!


Danae Witter

Danae Witter, American violinist and violist, received her Doctorate of Musical Arts Degree in May 2011 from the University of Southern California, including a minor in theory analysis and electives in viola and music education.

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