Must Passion Become a Profession?

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“I have a passion for music. I don’t want a music degree because I don’t want to be a concert musician [as in a solo artist] and I can’t really afford it. What do I do with my passion for music? I’d like to generate an income from it. although I already have a job outside the music profession. What to do when you have a passion burning in you?”

An interesting dilemma for a grown-up would-be professional in the music world.

Why should you do anything with a passion but enjoy it? As a teacher I hear this a lot from my students: they love music, ergo they should make a living from it. I discourage any of my young students from devoting themselves only to music. I firmly believe you have to have Plan B. So much can go wrong in the life of a musician from slicing a finger and occupational injuries to the unfortunately common occurrence of just plain not being able to find a job. Some of my students get misty eyed and their lower lips tremble when I say this, but it’s my moral obligation to tell them the truth, even if they don’t want to listen.

What we often forget is that music makes everything better. Until it doesn’t. That is, it isn’t music that’s the problem, it’s thinking that our passion must be our profession. I would like to remind everyone that lots of people have a passion for cooking or the, er, amatory arts but that doesn’t mean they must make a profession of it… Why do young musicians feel this way?

Part of the problem is their teachers, both passively and actively.

1. Passive encouragement. You, the teacher, are a wonderful person, you play divinely well, you probably perform a good deal, or you make sure your students go to concerts where they see glamorous soloists. You are the very embodiment of what a musician (and hopefully a teacher) should be. You are a fantastic example – and there’s the rub. One of the reasons you teach is probably (not necessarily) because you can’t make a good enough living playing. Your students don’t notice this. They just see the romantic, glamorous part of you that they want to see and, let’s face it, you probably don’t go out of your way to discourage it either. Ego alert! It’s also a wonderful affirmation of our teaching that our students want to follow in our footsteps.

2. Active encouragement: (You) “OMG, this is a fantastic talent which must be developed at all costs. He/she’s the 21st’ century answer to Heifetz!” The only problem is that we may forget that there are a lot of fabulously talented young virtuosos out there who can’t get a decent job or develop a satisfying and remuniterive solo career. And we often forget one other even more important thing, in my view: if a student has a talent for a musical instrument, he probably has talents for other things that should be at least explored if not developed. If we insist that our students (and their parents) dedicate themselves body, heart, soul and bank account to music, then we may be doing them a disservice. We must also remember how easy it is to convince parents that they have a wonderful prodigy on their hands (even if it isn’t true). It takes very little to turn a perfectly normal mom into a stage mother. So we must tread carefully. Do we really want to encourage another Lang Lang (with corresponding father)? In my experience, for many being a professional musician is often a vocation or a calling, much like becoming a priest, and there’s little a teacher or parent can do to discourage this – but we have to be on guard about unduly influencing those on the fence. The fact that a student “can” doesn’t mean she “should.”

Nourishing a passion and making income from it are often two different things. No one should worry about making money from a passion. I tell my students to take care of your passion, develop it, don’t think about the commercial aspects of it. Those will find you, if that is your destiny, once you have honed your art. You should also be really glad you have a passion – many people don’t. In any case, know that there are lots of world-class musicians out there who have very satisfactory (outside of the music world) day jobs and play, sing and/or compose in their down time. Why? Because they get to do and play what they want to with their music, not what they have to do because someone is paying them (often badly). Lots of orchestral musicians are miserable and underpaid (and, of course, many are happy and well paid, but what are the chances of anyone getting those jobs?).

Here’s an example: a young musician I know well started with an amateur orchestra as concertmaster and soloist (unpaid), had a big part in slowly turning this orchestra into a professional one, has acquired an excellent reputation in her genre and now travels all over the world playing with the group of her dreams (usually as solo violin) and gets paid for it. She cultivated and developed her passion for what she does without thinking of being remunerated, and voila! She still has to keep her day job, but she’s having fun, gets lots of attention, does what she wants and gets paid. So my advice to the would-be professional above would be to keep her normal job, use her off-time to develop her passion, find her niche and see what life brings her.

In closing, I’ll bet you’re wondering about this absolutely delicious little boy in the photo above. Well you can see more of him in the video in this link:  Brahms Boy  *

At three years of age he could identify pieces played by his professional pianist father – and the composers, too – and be quite insistent about being right when challenged. In today’s world of prodigies and the common belief that not only one should but ought to be able to make a career with one’s passions, I wondered what became of this prodigious little boy.

I didn’t have to look far. He made a comment on the BBC Facebook page (linked above) that gave it all away:

“I DID actually grow up to be an accomplished classical pianist and I performed
alongside my father in piano duets all over the world before he sadly passed away
in 2010. We were a double act from my earliest memories, right into my thirties. The reason I did not become a professional musician is that despite having a musical ear
and ‘perfect pitch’ I was actually far more talented in Art & Design and my parents encouraged me to follow my own path, have a good education and most of all, make
sure I have as secure a profession as possible but to enjoy music as a fantastic hobby.* Therefore I now enjoy a successful career in Architecture and Surveying, doing what
I always wanted to do.”


This is a perfect example of music making everything better without taking control of someone’s life and making it worse. A perfect example of far-sighted parents who knew all the problems of a career in music back when life was much easier and more remunerative for musicians.

A passion is a wonderful thing to have as long as you use it and enjoy it. The minute you allow it to use you, dictate what you can do for a living, devote most of your energies to pursuing it without realistically evaluating your probable chances of success, it risks becoming an obsession instead of a profession. There’s nothing wrong with being an amateur – the very definition of the word has “love” in it, which can sometimes be beaten out of professionals who often have real worries about earning their daily bread. And teachers should be nourishing the love of music first and foremost while remembering that a passion should not always become a profession.

Post author: Eloise Hellyer

* Use this in case the hyperlink doesn’t work – you’ll have to copy and paste.

**italics mine Registered & Protected  MSSU-D6QY-TKLN-JYT7

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21 May 2018

One thought on “Must Passion Become a Profession?

  1. Carol de la Haye

    Brava, once again! If I had to choose a favourite from amongst your excellent articles, Eloise, this one would definitely be on the short list! You’ve covered all the reasons I decided NOT to go professional. I wanted to keep the love alive, by teaching and playing in good amateur groups, and have never regretted it for a single second.


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