Failure is Inevitable in Classical Music — How Do We Prepare Young Musicians?

Classical music has given me a lot: I’ve found an important and sacred part of my identity in being a violist and educator, made lifelong friends, become an entrepreneur, and traveled the world. My life as a classical violist almost seems predestined — and yet, I can’t shake the apprehension I feel when a student approaches me about pursuing a career in this field. Or maybe it’s not exactly apprehension, but the guilt of knowing that, despite years of private lessons, masterclasses, youth orchestras, summer festivals, and “All-states,” I still feel compelled to tell students that a career in music is not a safe option — or even worse, that I’m not sure if it’s worth it.

Of course, as an educator and a serial optimist, I never say this out loud. Instead, I begin to flip through my repertoire, rattle through the viola teachers I think would be perfect for them, and start to chart a course from that very moment to the first prescreening deadline two-to-three years away. Because the truth is that my hesitancy isn’t really about whether I think my students should pursue a career in classical music — my hesitancy comes from wondering if my students are prepared for the inevitable failure that accompanies this choice.

We educators, parents, and guardians do a poor job of preparing young people for failure, but our educational and social systems don’t inherently create many opportunities for young people to fail. Much of a student’s success in school during adolescence is measured through progress and reliably showing up, which teaches young people that a consistent effort is half the battle. If you study hard, you can earn a good grade. If you practice hard, you can make the school team.

Unfortunately, these formative experiences do not prepare young people for the unique failures in classical music, where sometimes, no matter your level of talent, qualification, or effort, you will still face rejection. When I speak with friends about failure in our field, we often come to the conclusion that there is no way to describe the feeling, especially when the stakes are high. It’s one thing to bomb a high school seating audition, but what about sitting in your hotel room after not advancing in a professional orchestra audition that you spent nearly $1,000 to attend? How about getting rejected from your dream school, or seeing your composition passed over in a call for scores? What if you do well in college and are accustomed to hard work tangibly paying off, but then you have trouble securing a job in a competitive market immediately after graduation?

Photo by Zhu Liang on Unsplash

Photo by Zhu Liang on Unsplash

The first time a young classical musician experiences failure will most likely be one of the hardest, especially since music students tend to be high achieving. Research has consistently found a link between music participation and academic achievement. This relationship is likely not causational, but in my experience, many of my private violin and viola students have also been at the top of their classes. These students who are used to consistently high levels of achievement in their academic studies will no doubt find it difficult when faced with the competition and subjectivity of the classical music field.

Even if students have experienced isolated, low-stakes failures in the past, they have likely never faced continual rejection. They might not play well for a seating audition, but they place in the next competition they enter. Or they might play poorly for an undergraduate jury, but this is offset by an A on a music theory exam. But the risk of rejection only increases as the path to a career in classical music becomes clearer, from competitive graduate school applications, to vying for the limited number of jobs that become open each year. As the overall level of performance and achievement gets higher and higher, the padding between success and failure gets thinner.

But failure is inevitable, and a fundamental part of the human experience; the more we fail, the better humans we become. From discovering the balance it takes to ride a bike to finding the right words to repair a friendship, failure enriches us as people. Failure is an important part of learning: you learn what to do by experiencing what not to do. And failure can also teach us just how much we want something, or show us that maybe it’s time to pursue a different path.

As much as we can try to prepare young people for failure, sometimes you just have to personally experience something to know how it feels. When I was 18, I just knew I had it all figured out — I knew exactly what I wanted to study in college, what I was going to do after, and had the timeline to match. While it goes without saying that things didn’t go exactly according to my plan, I find it hilarious and refreshing to speak to 18-year-olds today and see that not much has changed. I admire their self-assuredness and determination to set their plans to motion. And as a teacher, I don’t think it’s my place to tell young people what they can and cannot do; I give my students tools and trust them to use those tools.

What we can do is be transparent with students about our experiences to help prepare them for the inevitable failures they will experience. As a viola student, I was told that pursuing an orchestra career was “hard” — and that is absolutely correct. It is certainly one of the hardest things I have done. But the most helpful advice I received along the way was from George Taylor, my viola teacher in grad school. He said, “Tell me what you want, and I’ll tell you how hard you have to work.” Sometimes being upfront and honest with students about this can be overwhelming and discouraging, but understanding what it truly takes to achieve a goal leaves less room for disappointment later.

I often ask my students what they do outside of playing their instrument with the hope that they are continuously developing their personhood and finding a healthy and balanced life away from school and their instrument.

Transparency about life outside of the practice room is also important. While I would not tell a student every aspect of my personal life, I would share that a career in classical music can come with financial barriers and mental health struggles, like having to buy a new instrument, paying for summer festivals and rent at the same time, or comparing yourself to the success of your peers. We can help by providing information about where to turn if this artistic pursuit becomes overbearing; your studio teacher, community-driven artistic institutions (like the Sphinx Organization), or free therapy initiatives (like The Loveland Foundation) are great places to start.

Students can also build their resilience to failure by having a multitude of experiences inside and outside of the field. Going to summer festivals, participating in youth orchestras, and attending concerts contextualizes the world students hope to enter, especially if they are a big fish in their small hometown. Hearing what other students their age can do and experiencing not being the best musician in the room can help those first failures feel less harrowing. Similarly, encouraging students to develop passions and interests outside of classical music can provide a sense of solace when studying music feels overwhelming. I often ask my students what they do outside of playing their instrument with the hope that they are continuously developing their personhood and finding a healthy and balanced life away from school and their instrument.

Photo by Francesco Gallarotti on Unsplash

Photo by Francesco Gallarotti on Unsplash

Finally, we should emphasize the importance of loving music. I am constantly grateful that I am able to make a living playing and teaching, and I would love for my students to experience this, as well. But the road to a career in classical music is a difficult one, and not absolutely loving every aspect of it will only make it harder. A student who finds true joy in playing their instrument will more easily withstand failure than those who have always played violin and don’t know what else to do.

Classical music needs young, excited individuals who are passionate about its cause, attentive to its change, and enthusiastic about its future. So with apprehension in tow, I continue to encourage my students to pursue a career in classical music. With respect for my students as people, changemakers, and musicians, I trust their discretion in what they envision for their lives.

I find it more imperative to focus on the true issue of managing failure. I believe it’s important to encourage our young people to fail, to embrace one of the main certainties in the pursuit of a career in classical music. And I hope those of us guiding the next generation of classical musicians can find peace in knowing that we might not be able to fully prepare young people for failure; sometimes they just have to do the thing.


I CARE IF YOU LISTEN is an editorially-independent program of the American Composers Forum, and is made possible thanks to generous donor and institutional support. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and may not represent the views of ICIYL or ACF.

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