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9 ways to succeed in music

Today's classical music business may be competitive and tough, but there are also more opportunities than ever. Success lies in knowing who you are, as Ariane Todes explains

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Last year I was invited to Birmingham Conservatoire by the Head of Strings there, Louise Lansdown, to talk to the string students about life beyond music education – to help them think about their futures in positive and realistic ways. In preparation for my talk, I sent the students a survey to fill out which asked them about their behaviour around practice, concerts and lessons, and also about their hopes, fears and expectations. Some of what I said was tailored to those thoughts, but much of it is universal, I think, so I thought it might make useful reading for a general audience.

I’ve kept in some of the quotes that came from interviews from The Strad (where I was editor at the time) by way of inspiration. I’ve pruned some of the more detailed and sensitive data, and I’ve kept the short-hand bullet-point format of my talk, but added notes where required, in italics.

Summary of students' fears based on survey results

  • Being good enough technically

  • Lack of jobs

  • Job insecurity

  • Confidence

  • Physical health

  • Buying an instrument

  • Finding the right people to play chamber music with

  • Audition competition

  • Frustration at not using skills

  • Not knowing how to make a living

Which of these are in your control?

It’s important to fix the things you can fix, accept the things you can’t, and to know the difference between the two,

Who are you?

  • I remember Raphael Wallfisch describing what made Gregor Piatigorsky such a great teacher

  • He said that Piatigorsky helped students understand what was good about their own playing

  • So often it’s the other way round with teachers, and the focus becomes a negative and critical one

  • Once you really understand what you do well, it can inform how you can develop in anything you do

  • I think it also transmits itself to the people around you

  • It becomes part of your unique identity, which is important

The importance of story

  • People love a good story

  • As human beings we’re hardwired to process information best through story telling

  • We remember facts, information, morality through the stories that are handed down to us.

  • Whether it’s the Bible, myths, Hollywood films, we have this rich imagination that latches on to narratives

  • It’s what truly great players achieve with they’re playing – great story telling

  • Think about it in your playing

  • Also think about it when you’re writing your biographies

  • Going back to what I discussed earlier, something that makes you unique

  • Take into account the medium and how people interact with that medium. Whether it’s a website, Facebook profile, programme note, exhibition blurb, sale listing – the format, length and tone all need to be appropriate

Today’s music world

  • It’s tough out there – there’s less money around

  • Barely a day goes by that there’s some miserable news story about a European or US orchestra

  • BUT It’s exciting in many ways

  • There are more and more ways to explore music

  • You can be watching a player on YouTube, or booking a ticket to their concert, within seconds of someone recommending it

  • You can crowd fund your own projects

  • People are more open-minded to different styles of music

  • Things can happen very quickly – an unknown can put a YouTube video up one day and have a record contract within months

  • The world is increasingly international – which means more competition but more opportunities

  • There are fantastic players – you go to any of the top competitions and most of the finalists are superb

  • On the other hand, you can probably count on the fingers of a couple of hands the truly great ones

  • On the plus side, you don’t have to be a top-class player these days to make a good career

  • There are plenty of good but not brilliant players who develop nice little careers for themselves

  • They find a niche – whether it’s a certain style, or way of presenting themselves, setting up a festival, or a particular repertoire

  • This is an age where having a niche is a very strong position

  • They slowly but surely build up their own following, whether using a PR person, or using Facebook and YouTube, just by being strategic and persistent

  • They communicate regularly and well about what they do

  • They have a story to tell

  • You might complain that it’s not fair that some people with less talent do better than others who have more. Get over it!

Zoë Keating on the younger generation

‘I’m impressed not only by their technological abilities but also by their self-awareness, which is something I never had. Young musicians seem very sure of what they’re doing and why they’re doing it, and more and more are realising that they will have to create their own opportunities and jobs… I strongly believe that when you’re starting out you have to live as cheaply as possible so you can take artistic risks. It’s a real killer to have all your artistic decisions tainted by money concerns’

DaXun Zhang on adapting

Double bassist DaXun Zhang

‘It’s important to be able to learn new skills and to adapt to the fast-changing world. Knowing one thing is not enough any more. Ten years ago I didn’t think I’d be doing what I am doing today and ten years from now I might be doing something different. The best we can do is to keep learning and to be prepared when opportunities come knocking on the door’

The importance of having goals

(In my survey, only 46% of the students answered the question about their long-term goals, so it was important to stress this)

  • A ten-year study, conducted by researchers from the Universities of Melbourne and New South Wales in Australia, has found that while sustained instrumental practice is key to achieving high levels of ability, long-term musical ambitions are equally important

  • They followed the musical progress over a ten-year period from 1997 onwards of 157 young instrumentalists aged between seven and nine

  • Those who envisioned an adult career in music from a young age were found to be better players at the study’s conclusion than those who did not – even if they had practised as much as their peers.

  • Research conclusions: ‘Previous research showed a clear relationship between accumulated practice and achievement, which was apparent in the result. But in addition, it appears that the level of commitment the children expressed before learning commenced interacted significantly with this linear relationship’

Summary of students’ priorities

(This was a collation of the general principles behind the many specific points behind the survey answers)

  • Getting notes right

  • Having a style

  • Communicate the music to the audience

  • Good intonation

  • Good sound

  • Finding own interpretation

  • Understanding of structure and harmonies (one person answered this way)

  • Knowing the background of the piece (one person answered this way)

Gary Hoffman on knowing the composer

(In the question about their priorities, not one of the students answered anything to do with the composer and their intentions, so it was important to say something about this)

‘As one matures one starts to see an organic element not just in this piece but in Brahms’s whole output, and other artistic endeavours that might relate to it, whether it’s a painting, or one’s experience… Brahms loved the mountains so when one goes hiking, one starts to see some of the things that influenced his writing and that he’s trying to articulate. The more we’re able to draw on these experiences and make connections, whether or not they’re exactly what the composer thought, the richer picture we have to offer… I always encourage players to get to know and perform as much of this music as possible and to be influenced by other artistic disciplines that can help to feed one and open one’s mind’

Steven Isserlis on music theory

‘Giving classes in many schools around the world, I have found time and again that, even if students take theory and harmony classes, they don’t think to relate what they have learnt there to the work they’re interpreting; nor are they taught to do so… Many is the time that I’ve asked a student to point out to me the three main subjects of the Brahms sonata that they’ve just played. An embarrassed silence ensues’

Christoph Poppen on practice

‘When I was young, I was completely focused on practising my violin. Looking back, I would tell myself not to focus too much on the violin repertoire, when I could have learnt more about symphonic works or opera, for example. I would read more scores, music literature nd piano parts. So, rather than playing for eight hours a day, I would have done well to devote seven to the violin and taken one hour to broaden my musical horizons in other ways. I try to explain this principle to my students, but invariably they don’t see the point – the violin is always at the centre of their world’

Steven Isserlis on other people’s recordings

‘As a general rule, one should try to avoid listening to recordings of a work one is studying… Too many people churn out carbon copies of the recordings they hear, instead of engaging directly with the composer through the score… Paradoxically, the more an interpreter studies the composer’s markings, the more different that interpreter’s performance will sound from anyone else’s’

Mikhael Kopelman on breadth

‘What would I tell my younger self? That an early experience of playing chamber music is priceless, especially the repertoire for string quartet, whatever musical field I was going to choose. I was almost 30 when I joined the Borodin Quartet as first violinist, and I had to learn around 20 pieces in my first year. I quickly saw a refinement in my playing, not just in terms of intonation but also in using varieties of colour, vibrato, bow pressure and distribution. I believe it has helped me to grow and become a better musician… I would also broaden my knowledge of symphonic, operatic and piano repertoire. One of my teachers advised me to listen to great singers of the early 20th century, such as Gigli, Caruso and Di Stefano, to learn how to sing on a stringed instrument. If you understand that, it can become your natural voice.

Helena Rathbone on good health

Violinist Helena Rathbone

‘I wish I could tell my younger self how important it is to be aware of how we use our bodies, both in playing our instruments and in everyday life. When we’re young, if nothing’s wrong, it seems like there’s no reason to worry. But being a musician means making tough demands on our bodies. Playing in itself is very physical, and we often do it for hours every day, for weeks on end. Then there are the factors that touring presents, such as lugging suitcases, or sitting for hours on planes and buses… I’ve had no serious problems physically, but I know I have a weak lower back. I’d like to keep playing for a long time yet and I’m sure that stretching and strengthening exercises would have been a good idea from a younger age. So come on, youngsters – don’t be afraid of taking time out of the practice room and jumping around in the fresh air!’

Hartmut Rohde on singing

‘I have learnt to take more risks and become 101 per cent confident in exaggeration (rather than 99 per cent). When I started my career, I began to trust in my technique and let the inner voice of the piece come out as if I were submerged in it. Looking back, I would say (and I recommend this to my students) that every etude or little isolated technique has to be played with free and full emotion… I would also tell my younger self to learn singing, to listen very attentively to operas, and to be interested in different languages and the lives that they represent. Once you experience how a piece represents your own life, you might feel deeply touched, and this will come across in your performance. As life continues, this becomes more and more fulfilling – just give yourself time for it to happen’

Stephanie Chase on character

'I would tell myself to listen to the great vocalists to learn about portamento, how to develop greater expression in sustained notes, and to acquire better awareness of phrasing. I would also absorb the idea, historically embraced by so many celebrated composers and musicians, of the natural expression of music, to be more mindful of the characters of sound and the accents of music (as in basic dynamics, fortepianos, sforzandos, swells, vibrato, and the like). I would also strive to understand their contexts, with the goal of arriving at a naturally expressive and uncontrived interpretation… Most importantly, I would tell myself that despite a number of inherent difficulties, being a musical artist is a profound privilege. We learn from other artists and interpret music by an astonishing number of composers. In today’s world the opportunity for this kind of collaborative and informed self-expression, which can be quite intimate feels increasingly rare'


(One of things that annoys me most going to concerts and competitions, and when I was editor of The Strad receiving information about young players, is the amount of badly written, boring, boring, boring biographies out there. This applies from student and competition level right up to the top of the business. Long lists of which orchestras they’ve played with, which competitions they’ve won, and most annoying for me – whose masterclasses they’ve attended, as if that says anything about their playing! I understand that there’s an industry formula that means that people are afraid to try something different, and it’s hard to do something different in an interesting, classy way, and to keep it up to date. I don’t think I’ve seen a good solution to this yet, but I’d like to see more people trying to tell their story in an interesting way, and I’d be happy to help anyone who is looking to do something more meaningful with their biography. End of rant.)

  • Story telling (What is your musical story? What were the key moments of your musical life that changed you, or performances that had special meaning for you?)

  • What is unique about you? (What is your speciality or passion as a musician? What projects have you done? What gets you worked up?)

  • Up to date

  • Instrument maker (People tend only want to mention this if they have a Strad, which creates a vicious circle in which audiences think only Strads matter, so musicians only mention Strads. Do you have a modern instrument? Then talk about it – say who made it and how you found it. An old French or German instrument? Talk about its history and its sound. Audiences will start to understand that there are great instruments out there other than classic Cremonese ones)

  • Not just a list (Honestly, people really don’t care which orchestras you’ve worked with. Yes, if you’ve worked with some really top ones, then mention them, but if that’s surrounded by ten other names, people aren’t even going to notice it – quality trumps quantity)

  • Tailor it (Don’t be lazy and assume that the same biography works for every single concert and CD release. Understand your specific audience)

  • Photo (This is a whole topic in itself, but make sure you have something that you're happy to see plastered around the internet for all eternity. That might make you think twice about anything that seems 'fun' or 'clever' at the time)

Approaching the media

  • Story – there has to be some angle to it

  • New – it has to be recent, fresh, different, and you have to be able to explain why it’s fresh and special

  • Relevant – tailor it to the readership

  • Concise – don’t offer screeds of text: most editors just don’t have time!

  • Top tip: don’t ever tell an editor they should write about you – from experience, I can say that’s the most counter-productive thing to do!

Be nice

  • No-brainer if you want to be hired again

  • Neville Marriner describing his audition process: ‘When you listen to a player, you know within two minutes if they can play the instrument or not. Then you put him or her in the ensemble for a trial period and see whether they have a chamber instinct and whether their basic sound gels with the rest of the orchestra. If not, they simply won’t be invited again. The final test is to take them on tour and see if they are bearable as personalities and fit in socially’


1) Know thyself

Being a musician begins with you. Knowing and being able to articulate why you love music, and why you must make a life of it, are the first steps to convincing the world that you are in the business to stay. Understanding how you stack up in the music world, and knowing what you have yet to learn, is equally important. If you are tougher on yourself than others are, you’ll be ready for anything

2) Be an artist

There are many musicians, but few real artists. True artists remake and replenish themselves perpetually. Decide what you need in order honestly to call yourself an artist and go get it. Study the people you consider to be great artists and emulate them. And not just musicians: spend a day as Mendelssohn, Picasso or Charlie Chaplin. Put yourselves in their heads and you’ll see the world differently

3) Keep learning

Artists never stop absorbing knowledge and ideas that enrich their minds. Read, listen, watch, ask questions and surround yourself with interesting people. Don’t discount unconventional sources of knowledge. People who are constantly learning are the most interesting, always changing and always growing. Be one of them

4) Work on your performance

Don’t be afraid to compare your performance to your own ideal. Tape yourself on your mobile phone. Video yourself. Ask your friends for honest opinions. Listen and watch those musicians you admire most. Ask to play for the best musicians you know. You will only show yourself to be more dedicated than others. Be relentless in your determination to improve. (I'd also add that it doesn't matter how brilliantly you play in your room or in your lessons if you haven't developed a good stage presence)

5) Careers are not made in isolation

A good musical life is founded on good relationships. Your friends, colleagues, mentors and industry contacts should be a large, ever-growing and well-maintained group. It will likely be one of these people who opens opportunities for you, recommends you, or shares a new idea that changes your life. Your musical family should be large and international!

6) Keep open about your future

Keep an open mind as to the variety of ways you could be a musician. Visualise different possibilities. There are many

7) Ask not what the industry can do for you

Everyone who works in the arts industry faces enormous challenges on a day-to-day basis. The best thing a musician can do for them is to offer solutions, not present problems. These people appreciate all your ideas about programming, creative ways to appeal to the public, and the help you can offer to run their organisations more powerfully. Ask yourself what you can do for them

8) Lead by example

The ideas and ideals of an artist are often beyond the comprehension of most around them. As a rule, the most effective way to stand out and to be happy is to live the life you believe in. Inspire others through your own work, and opportunities will surely come your way

9) Give back

It is never too soon to begin sharing your experience, knowledge and inspiration with those poised to become classical music listeners, supporters and practitioners in the near and far futures. As an artist and a musician, you always have something to share

[End of presentation]

I think my views have developed further since then, specifically in relation to communicating with audiences editorially both online and through the media, so I will write more on that soon. I'd be interested to know what you think of this, and if you feel I've missed anything out, so please comment! And if you would like me to have this sort of conversation with any of your students, then please contact me here.

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