There has recently been some uproar in our small community over an employee of a leading British conservatoire sending out a very poorly written set of guidelines for getting on in the musical profession. It was a hodge-podge of conflicting advice that included several offensive terms, but also made no attempt to explain the grim reality of the profession it portrayed (and let’s not kid ourselves: most of the broad stereotyping, casual sexism, toxic competitiveness, etc, that the memo described, cemented, and almost encouraged; is sadly true). As a conversation-starter at a symposium, it would have worked brilliantly and kicked off a debate on how we could strive to make our world better. But as a memo circulated by email with no context, only pearls of wisdom in the vein of ‘what happens on tour stays on tour’, it just sends the message: this is the world you’re entering, conform or fail!
It’s sad. We can do so much better, and it should start at conservatoire. Music should be a collaborative quest for the betterment of mankind through beauty… not a cess-pit of one-upmanship and insincere high-school posturing.
I’ve always felt conservatoires didn’t adequately prepare students for some of the harsher realities of the profession, but obviously this isn’t the way to do it. Even some of the more light-hearted elements of the memo, which focussed on the social aspect of music-making, only serve to take the fun out of it! Telling students to be the life and soul of the party (but avoid getting a bad reputation, obviously) is a recipe for a generation of young people who will fail by trying too hard to be ‘fun’. Rather than just allow themselves to be infected by the fun of their slightly older colleagues through listening to anecdotes, advice, etc.
So here’s my advice to students (or anyone else for that matter), and hopefully it’ll be a lot shorter than that memo (though my preamble has already made that unlikely). You’re about to enter a world of pain! Studies have shown you’re 3x more likely than a ‘normal person’ to suffer from depression as a musician. You will face rejection, sexism, racism, section-ism, instrument-ism, etc. You will also meet wonderful people along the way, have great banter, make memorable music, so it’s not all bad. Focus on the good stuff, be patient, be kind to yourself, learn as you go. And in all your interactions with others - there’s only one rule you need follow. My friends and I call it Rule One (I have unashamedly stolen it from a good mate of mine).
Rule One = Don’t be a dick!
Always judge yourself by Rule One. Is coming to a rehearsal underprepared ‘being a dick’ to my colleagues? Yes! Don’t do it. Is talking about so-and-so behind their back ‘being a dick’? Probably! Try not to. Is warming up in a shared dressing room when your mate has a migraine ‘being a dick’? Yeah, try to find a better place! Infecting everyone with a plague just to avoid missing out on a show fee? I refer you to Rule One. Is flirting with a colleague when you’re married ‘being a dick’? Sometimes, most often, and definitely if that colleague is your ‘underling’, and going beyond flirting earns you a capital D. Is calling someone out for ‘being a dick’ constitute a breach of Rule One? Unfortunately the answer is quite often ‘probably’ ;)
It is a simple rule at heart though, and may well be all you need to be a valued member of our community. I’m willing to bet it’ll serve you better in the long run than any elaborate ‘networking tactics’, in your well-being as much as in your career.