10 Things I Wish I'd Known When Graduating From Music School: Part 1

This year’s Ithaca College alumni weekend was last weekend - I wish I could have gone to see friends and the beautiful fall colors of the Finger Lakes region. I then started thinking about what I had thought my life might be like 11 years after graduation (I had no idea!) and what advice now I have for 2005 Me (lots).

The beautiful view of Lake Cayuga

The beautiful view of Lake Cayuga

What I Wish I’d Known When Graduating From Music School:

1) Anything having to do with business.

I learned many things from going to music school, but one of my biggest laments is that none of our classes prepared us to gain any business skills. The one token class that tried to prepare us for the future, Career Orientation, was essentially useless - as freshmen, we listened to someone in the music business talk about their job once a week and wrote a short summary. I realize that schools don’t want to cram another class into an already packed curriculum, but in a field where a majority of people end up being self-employed at some point, it seems irresponsible not to teach these topics.

I now have well-defined systems for things like bookkeeping so that doing my taxes is no longer stressful, but it took me a long time to get to this point (with the help of an accountant)! Any tips on marketing oneself would have been drastically updated for today’s technology, but anything more than zero knowledge would have been great.

2) Look for community and connection.

As an introvert, I typically had ignored all advice about networking (ick!), because I always imagined a room full of smarmy business people, and assumed that this was the only way people did it. Now I know that meeting people who do what you do can happen organically (and is often best when it does), and even over the Internet. At the first post-college piano teacher meeting that I went to after moving back to Minnesota, I was the only person there under 30 and no one talked to me, so I avoided going to similar meetings for years afterward.

In retrospect, I shouldn’t have given up on finding people who were doing what I was doing, but I hadn’t expected it to take so long. Instead of asking for help from peers, I did it the hard way: figured out lots of things on my own with only internet research to aid me. It would have been so much easier if I’d had a community to check in with, and if I’d admitted that I was new at teaching and thus inexperienced, which is okay! I couldn’t get support without being open to receiving it.

3) You have to make your own path - do it your own way.

I’ve always been a person who reaches for the instruction booklet first, and when there wasn’t one, I essentially made my own by doing tons of research and following a path that had been modeled by others.

I got a classical music degree (which I don’t regret - it was great training), but though I love many forms of classical music, it never felt it would be enough if that was all I did. After graduation, many of my peers either pursued more schooling or became educators - I didn’t see examples of many other career options that seemed safe or appealing enough, so I felt like I should be doing what others were doing.

I see now that even then, I was forging my own path in a small way: I tried to have as much diversity in my studies as possible, taking several jazz classes, every non-classical music class that I had time for, and having an outside concentration in art history and anthropology. It was actually a Latin American music class for non-majors that made me realize how much I loved Brazilian music back in 2003, planting the seed that led to my now full-blown obsession with it.

Also, I took an expensive and time-consuming detour when I auditioned for collaborative piano graduate programs several years ago. I could call this a failure and a waste of time, but now I’m glad that it didn’t work out, because I see that it was just a convenient way for me to keep following other people’s directions instead of my own. I used to feel like I didn’t really fit in anywhere (not fully a classical musician, jazz musician, accompanist, etc.), but now I’m seeing more connections between all of the things I’ve done and how they help each other - my well rounded skill set that grad schools probably labeled “she can’t focus on anything” has made me a better musician, regardless of which style I’m playing.

Now I know that there is really no model for my exact career path (still in progress, always evolving), and that’s a good thing - in a sea of musicians in the world, why wouldn’t I want to be uniquely myself?

outside Ford Hall

outside Ford Hall

4) Trust in the process: test + change

When it seemed like my whole life was in front of me, without any professional experience yet, I assumed, like many of us do, that everyone else had it all figured out and I would (hopefully) someday achieve the elusive state of Figured It Out. It’s so easy to compare your insides to someone else’s outsides - seeing their product and comparing it to my process always felt bad.

Some of the wisest advice I got in school was from my theory professor John White, who I also took some jazz piano lessons with during the summer after graduation. In one of my lessons, I was mentioning being anxious about moving back home and starting over, and Dr. White said, “The fear doesn’t really go away, you just have to work through it.” I brushed it off, because I didn’t understand how people did that, but it’s harder to face fears of things that have never happened to me than to say afterwards, “Oh yeah, that didn’t kill me, I’m fine.” In other words, life experience makes everything easier, and you can’t get it until you live it.

I was also pretty uncomfortable with the idea of doing things wrong (what does “wrong” mean, anyway?), but really, trial and error is often the best we can do, and learning from mistakes or things that don’t go as expected can lead us to new, interesting places. Then all we can do is move in that interesting direction, even if slowly.

This blog post is even a form of me trusting the process - I put off starting this blog for so long because I didn’t really know how to do it, and I still don’t totally know. We all have to learn as we go, no matter what we’re doing, and I try to choose to be fascinated by the process instead of intimidated - I think it’s working. Curiosity is everything.

Image credit: the inspirational Elise Blaha Cripe - click through for her DIY!

Image credit: the inspirational Elise Blaha Cripe - click through for her DIY!

5) Start before you’re ready

Great advice from a recovering procrastinator, right? (2005 Me thinks that 2016 Me is crazy.) Start today - it’s not going to be more convenient tomorrow. I am still really good at thinking of reasons why that’s not true, but I am at least a little bit wiser and know the great myth of procrastination: that task will be more appealing/less scary tomorrow than it is today (I see what you’re doing there, brain!)

My main strategy to combat that is either to trick myself by setting a deadline when I’m feeling more inspired (and safely months away from said deadline), or to remind myself that it might actually be scarier to know that I haven’t done any of the things that I really want to do. Not to get morbid on you, but none of us know when we’re going to die. I often use the question “if I found out I were dying, would I still do (or not do) this?” as a way to provide clarity for myself.

The other advice I’d have for 2005 Me in this category sounds cheesy, but essential: fake confidence if you don't have it yet - you are legit even if you don’t know what you’re doing. You know that quote “Eighty percent of life is showing up?” It might be a cliche, but it’s true - so many people don’t even bother to show up, so any effort I’m making automatically puts me further down the path to success and gets me closer to my goals. Time passes fast, and in a flash, I’m feeling more experienced at whatever it is - if I put in the work, this is inevitable. Starting is the hardest part.

This post is already getting pretty long, so look for part 2 next week!

Rebecca Hass

Pianist and composer