10 Things I Wish I Knew When I Was a Young Musician

When it comes to most things in life, there isn’t much of an advantage of being older except for one thing: experience.  When you live longer, you have more experiences, both good and bad.  When I was in high school, and even college, there were many things that I know now that I wish I’d known back then.  Here’s my top ten list of things that I wish I’d known when I was a young musician.

  1. Practicing isn’t a matter of how many hours you put in, but how many good hours you put in. It’s quality, not quantity.  Practicing intelligently is something that my best teachers instilled in me, and it’s vital if you’re going to survive in the professional world.  You don’t always have months to prepare your repertoire, and after school is over other demands will fill in the open spaces, and being able to be efficient in your practicing will pay for itself many times over.  Trust me on this one.
  2. Your body is also your instrument – learn how it works and take care of it. I cannot stress this enough.  Every year I see high school aged musicians who are suffering from overuse injuries (see #1 above) that might have been avoided with some basic knowledge of how the mechanics of playing their instrument affect their physical well-being.  A book of stretches is essential: daily stretching before practice and rehearsals can absolutely save your future career.  I recommend the classic book Stretching by Bob Anderson. There are also such disciplines as the Feldenkrais Method or Alexander Technique that can help you become aware of your body and its motions that can be extremely helpful both before and after an injury happens.
  3. Being professional is a 24 hour job. When I was in school, we used to have a phrase that described this:  The Conservatory Curse.  If you were talking trash about someone else’s performance, chances are they were standing right behind you – no matter where you were.  What to do?  Don’t talk trash about or to other musicians.  You never know when or where you’ll run into them again – they might be in a position to help your career later on when you least expect it, and chances are they won’t be in a charitable mood if you’ve been rude to them.  I had a teacher who was at the very pinnacle of his profession who I never, ever heard utter an unkind word about anyone, either personally or professionally.  It’s a standard that I strive to attain myself, and the old saw that one catches more flies with honey than vinegar is absolutely true.
  4. Keep busy, and do a variety of things. This was a hard one for me to learn.  When I joined the Oregon Symphony I was consumed by the demands of my first full-time professional job, but I also played chamber music, filled in with Third Angle New Music Ensemble, played recitals and concertos with various orchestras, and in general stayed busy and kept my workload varied.  Variety is the spice of life, they say, and it’s very true in the musical world.  The main advantage of variety is that each different sort of music-making that you do will reinforce the other.  Playing in orchestra demands ensemble skills, which are reinforced by playing chamber music.  Solo playing demands the height of preparation and rigorous performance standards, which benefit all of your other playing, and so on.  In addition, do things outside of music.  I cycle, read, blog, and cook regularly, and this makes my life more balanced and enjoyable.  Sure, I still live for my music, but music is just a part of my life, not my entire life.
  5. Respect your elders and those who have more experience than you do. In music school there are various classes of musicians, but most often it boils down to two: those who can really play, and everyone else.  This is all well and good in school, where there is often an unhealthy obsession with competition.  In the real world, however, it’s not always about who plays the most accurately.  That old guy in the back of the violins might not shred like you do, but he might have played under Copland or Stravinsky, and would have some great stories to tell.  He also, chances are, knows pretty much every standard work that an orchestra plays, and would have a wealth of information about bowings and fingerings to share should you hit it off.  Plus, it’s just a matter of manners.  Be respectful to those who have gone before you.  This is a relatively rare thing to encounter these days, and if you adopt these manners, you will distinguish yourself from the crowd.
  6. Be a sponge, not a faucet. Most of the great musicians, artists, and people in the world have one thing in common: they are constantly learning from the world around them.  This is especially important for a young musician.  Every new concert, rehearsal, or gig is an opportunity to learn something.  You might have played the Dvorák cello concerto several times, but did you ever really pay attention to that second oboe part at the beginning of the second movement?  It’s cool, and wicked hard to pull off.  Listen to how good wind players phrase – try to emulate that if you’re a string player or pianist.  Listen to how great singers phrase – everyone should try to aspire to that kind of phrasing.  As you learn more, resist the temptation to spew your advanced state of knowledge all over your colleagues.  You will quickly earn a reputation as a blow-hard, and no one will every take you seriously again.  Seriously.
  7. Choose aspiration over competition. It’s easy to be competitive – sometimes it’s even fun – but it can go too far.  It’s easy to let it go to the dark side.  Resist that temptation.  You want to play more notes faster than the other guy.  Louder.  Higher.  Whatever.  Instead trying to tear someone down, look at what it is that they do that you like, and try to figure out how to integrate it into your own playing.  Listen to recordings of the great players or singers and try to figure out what they do that makes them unique.  YouTube is a boon, because there are all sorts of videos of artists new and old, and it is very possible to learn a lot from viewing them.  Good teachers take the time to point out great players that can be learned from, and often will loan a student recordings or videos, or even have their studio watch or listen to them as a group.  The main point is, make your quest to be better a positive thing.  There will always be someone better than you, and always someone less good, and it’s something you should always keep in mind.
  8. Diversify: learn about other art forms. When I was in high school and college I was always interested in lots of stuff other than music.  I built models, took photographs, rode my bike, read tons of books.  Aside from the outside activities, it’s also very valuable to learn about the other fine arts from the time periods of the music that you’re working on.  When I was in undergrad at the University of Puget Sound, there was a lot of coursework outside of the music program, and writing was stressed through the entire curriculum.  My final senior paper was about Schoenberg and the Blaue Reiter Almanach, which took an entire semester to research and write, and coincided with a chamber group of mine doing Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night.  I found that being exposed to the entirety of what Schoenberg’s great artistic school was up to at that time very helpful in trying to figure out how to present the piece. When listening to lieder, for example, you might want to read more of the poetry by the poet whose words are set by the composer.  Or you might want to take in a play related to a work you’re performing, or that’s contemporaneous to the work you’re studying.  Music doesn’t exist in a vacuum, it’s part of a greater artistic and social movement, and so too should you.
  9. Learn the business of music.  This can never begin too early.  If you do wedding or occasional gigs, learn to draft a contract to cover the eventualities of things going awry.  The musical portion of an event is often the last to be hired, and there is almost never time to get things staked out much in advance.  In addition, learn how to write a good, attractive resume.  Make sure that you know how to use online social media to your advantage: put up videos of your playing on YouTube (but only if it’s really good), set up a fan page on Facebook with photos and audio files,  and set up a Twitter account related to your performing activities.  The possibilities are virtually limitless, and as the generation that is the first to be fully immersed in these new media formats, you have the power to make them work for you.  This is such an important arena that such formerly conservative institutions as Juilliard, Curtis and Eastman are adding curricula that address self-promotion and survival in this new media landscape.
  10. Love what you do – and remember to nurture that love. When you’re young and just finding your way, your relationship with music is passionate and full of zest and ardor.  Over time, setbacks and the less positive side of the business (and it is, ultimately, a business built on an art form) can make one become lazy, jaded, and cynical.  It’s easy to forget that you used to love the Beethoven Fifth Symphony after you’ve played it a dozen times or more.  That’s why it’s so important to nurture the basic love for music and performing that you have right now.  Spend time regularly investing in that initial stock of love that you have for music, and it will sustain you over the long haul.

17 thoughts on “10 Things I Wish I Knew When I Was a Young Musician

  1. Rachel Velarde

    YES!!!!!! I agree completely with all of this. I am extraordinarily happy with where I am right now, but the MONEY, time and energy I would have saved in my 20’s if I had known!! Thank you for this posting – I will pass it on to my students (and keep it in mind, as I am now a “veteran” but not on the “geezer” side of the equation, yet….). Happy New Year!

    Reply
  2. Michael Divino

    Thank you Mr. Noble for your enlightening post. I am a 17 year-old violinist about to embark on the college music major experience. You’re so right when you say it is a matter of quality over quantity.

    Thanks again for your great post.
    Michael

    Reply
  3. monica hayes

    Charles:
    Of course, the advice you have written here can apply to many other careers, and to living a good life in general. But your keen insight is especially important to musicians, other types of artists, and athletes working together as an ensemble/team.
    Your comments about life experiences is so valuable! Pete Seeger said: “Education is when you read the fine print. Experience is what you get if you don’t”.
    I surely will pass your top 10 list on to numbers of parents, instructors and their students… your advice fills a great need these days. The valued mentors to young musicians in schools are being stretched beyond realistic expectations, as we see their teaching time reduced or eliminated due to budget cuts and shifting priorities in our schools. Thank you again for sharing your experiences and insights. It is especially valuable coming from a young, experienced, professional musician who is still far from being considered an old “geezer”!

    Reply
  4. Jeff Sass

    Great list. I agree with all of it and would add one more.
    Sight Reading
    When your band/orchestra conductor says “in the real world, you will have to play gig’s with only 1 rehearsal or even no rehearsals” listen to them! Work on your sight reading every time you practice so you can take these opportunities when they come your way!

    Reply
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  6. Rex Turner

    That’s great, Charles! It’s been a long time since we did the Evergreen Festival, but that would have made a great final presentation – practical and inspirational. I hope you are finding time to work with students.
    -miss you and all the gang –

    Rx

    Reply
  7. Lawrence Bradley

    Charles, I’m not sure if you would remember me from UPS but I remember you and your commitment to quality whilst you were there well. Thank you for writing this; I hope you will not mind my sharing it with others!

    Reply
  8. Nickhay32

    Excellent posting. Absolutely, love what you do, or why do it right? This is just a fantastic posting. I learned a lot from it.

    Reply
  9. Tina Clemons

    Though I cannot say that I have ever performed for music presentations personally, I have by way of group chorals sung for the pleasure of choral works. This is helpful for me to learn a lot more than I would have otherwise. God Bless the ones who have learned well enough to perform professionally. Yet my goal is to worship God in what I sing with others and this is helpful even there.Thanks again for these pointers!

    Reply

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