Is Music Your Job or Your Passion?

I started out as a music major in college, but after my sophomore year I became so frustrated with the department I was in that my two choices were either to switch schools or change my major. It was an emotionally difficult time, and I had a lot of existential stress about music that centered around two main questions: Am I doing music because I love it, or because it is the only thing I am good at? Is music valuable?

I wanted to take time off from school to get my head together, but in doing that I would have lost my Mom and Dad scholarship, so I had to make a decision amidst a lot of tears and pressure. I did seek out advice: some of it was good but uninformed and unhelpful; some of it was downright bad. I wish I had sought out more.

I believe the first question is something every serious musician asks themselves. Why do we pursue music? It is an essential question. Music is extremely demanding. It takes a tremendous amount of time and effort, years of study, and financial investment in lessons, instruments, and equipment. During my high school years, I had spent more time on musical pursuits than anything else I did. I practiced more than I worked at my part time job, more than I did homework for all other classes combined, and more than I socialized with friends. Over the course of a year, I spent more time in rehearsals and performances than at any church or youth-group related event. Music was my life.

When I got to college, that continued. But when I got frustrated and felt like I hit a wall with the department, the motivation to continue suddenly dropped out from beneath me. Why was I doing this? On the trajectory of pursuing music, I had pretty much left everything else behind. I wondered why. I had been an honors student in high school and could have chosen other paths. Why didn’t I? Was music just easier for me, or did I really love it more than any other pursuit? Was I fulfilling my potential “just” being a musician?

Was music even worth the pursuit? Anyone who cares about others wants to make a difference and do something that benefits the world at large. Can music help one fulfill this purpose? During my time of questioning, I was told by a spiritual leader that being a musician was selfish and that I should do something that actually helps people instead of being stuck in a practice room all day. To her, music wasn’t valuable at all. I felt that she was voicing what so many other people thought, that ultimately my work in music was considered worthless, and her words were what ultimately convinced me to switch my major.

I have regretted that decision ever since.

I can’t say that I didn’t use my degree in elementary education. Many parts of it have been useful. However, I believe that we use whatever learning we have. I have also used parts of my college classes in botany and even geology. Go figure.

Within a semester of leaving my music degree, I began to miss it tremendously. The first question got answered: Do I love music? Absolutely. I couldn’t live without it. I continued to practice and learn about music despite no longer being a music major. The motivation to do so came from within, not from the requirements of a teacher, a class, or a degree program. Am I capable of other things? Yes. Music didn’t make me dumb, and it didn’t turn me into a one-trick pony. With hard work and determination, I could do almost anything I wanted to. Later on I came to understand the value of music more in it’s impact on developing skills in learning and self-discipline, on the workings of the brain, and how much it can create community, lift people up, and bring beauty to a dark world.

What matters most is where I want to invest my time and effort.

I’ve always had a lot of hobbies. As an adult, I’ve spent a great deal of time gardening, making bread, making cheese, and doing various crafts. I like reading up on all sorts of topics. There are many things that interest me. But the interest only goes so far. When I’m out in the garden, I like it just enough to grow food for my family and sometimes share it with friends. But I don’t like it enough to fight the weeds and bugs sufficiently, not enough to put in the real effort of making a living at it. I like baking bread. Could I be a baker for a living? No. I don’t like baking bread enough to get up before dark to turn on the ovens. Not enough to invest in a food preparers license or rent a commercial kitchen. Insert just about any hobby I have, and the answer is the same. I like it, but not enough.

Music is not a hobby for me. It is a passion. It is the only thing I have found, thus far, that I love enough to devote the energy it takes to work at a professional level, for the public. I can involve myself in music-related activities from morning to night and not get bored: practicing, composing, reading a biography or theory book, researching techniques or history, teaching, listening, performing. It doesn’t get old.

For about fifteen years after college, I didn’t know if I would ever work professionally in music. If I had completed a full bachelors of music in my undergrad years, it would have been much easier for me to continue my education in music. But the fact that I didn’t, combined with getting married, raising and homeschooling young children, and moving halfway across the country so my husband could attend seminary, meant that my only motivation for increasing my musical abilities were internal. I had no prospects for work. I had no prospects for performance outside of volunteering at church (although I did set up a casual solo recital once.) I had a few piano students, but not many, in my tiny, rural town. I continued to practice and learn new pieces, almost every day. I wrote pieces. They weren’t very good as I had no training in composition, but I made attempts. I continued to grow as a musician because I loved music.

This season of pandemic has caused the motivation to drop out for many musicians. This morning, I read Zach Finkelsteins’ post at Middle Class Artist, “We are Not OK“, in which he said, “I came to realize over the course of the pandemic how much my discipline and dedication to the craft required something to work towards, a tangible goal. Practice for its own sake, without the opportunity for shared human connection with my fellow musicians, without the electric thrill of a live performance, feels hollow, a facsimile of my old life.”

I understand those feelings. They were the feelings I felt for a decade and a half when I didn’t know if I would ever truly work as a musician. When the bottom drops out, we have to ask ourselves serious questions. Why are we doing this? Is our motivation for being musicians external or internal? Do we really love it enough to keep going when the external rewards are non-existent?

My personal opinion is that if music is not done for love, it’s not worth it. I have known musicians who, pre-pandemic, were working professionally and making decent money, yet counting the days until they retired. I always wondered why they bothered. Music is just too hard. If all you’re after is a good income, do something else. There is easier work.

The pandemic will make it clear for many musicians whether they’re in it for love or money. For some, time off from rehearsals, performances, and even practicing will make their heart ache, like it did for me. Others will realize they don’t miss it, and somewhere along the way the love died. Those that find they love music will continue in it. They may need a day job to cover living expenses, but the music won’t die. They will carve out time to practice or compose. They will keep up their musical growth and fitness and be ready when things pick up again. Those that discovered music was just a job may find they would rather be in a new line of work.

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A professional recording of my piece for string orchestra, Daughter of the Stars, is now available. It can be found here.

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