Music: Hobby Or Profession ?

For the uninitiated, the glamour and glory of being onstage and soaking up the applause of a rapturous audience must seem like a wonderful dreamworld. In reality, the world of professional music-making (just like the world of the professional sports player) is a minefield of potential problems for the musician’s physical and mental health.

Does anybody ever learn music in order to get a safe and steady job, a professional career, a secure income to be able to buy a house and have a family ?? ALMOST NEVER !! To achieve that objective, people study accounting, dentistry, engineering, finance, law etc. So why do we learn music and dedicate so much energy to mastering our instrument ? Usually – hopefully – it’s because we love doing it. In other words, because it adds so much meaning and pleasure to our lives that we don’t care about those other materialistic objectives. This has to be the basic definition of an “artist”.

But if we play well enough, it’s possible that other people apart from our family and closest friends will want to share our pleasure. These unknown people may want to watch us doing it, listening to our playing because the experience gives pleasure and meaning also to their lives. And if we are extremely lucky, well-taught, talented, motivated and communicative, people may even be willing to pay money to do this, in which case we may be able to earn our living by our passion …………… But it’s getting harder and harder to achieve this dream.

To get a job in an orchestra nowadays as a simple tutti string player we need to play at the same (or better) standard as a soloist of 30 years ago. Orchestral auditions are not only rare events, they are also very sad events: there are dozens and dozens of people who’ve dedicated so much of their lives to their instrument, and only one will get the job. And this job, that everybody dreams about, is it really such a wonderful long-term occupation? (see Orchestral Playing). Long-term job satisfaction amongst orchestral string tutti players is nothing to celebrate. In a huge survey of job satisfaction in the USA, orchestral musicians were on the same level as rubbish collectors!

Not only are there more and more fine players competing for fewer and fewer jobs, there is also less and less audience for “non-superstar” classical musicians. Why is this? Not so long ago, music was a magical rarity. The only way to hear it was “live”. Microphones were only invented in the 1920s allowing vinyl records and radio, both of which became hugely popular. But this technological magic of recording, transmission and reproduction was still quite primitive: the sound quality was poor, and the technology quite expensive. Live music was still incomparably better.

Nowadays it’s quite the contrary. Going to a live concert by Cecilia Bartoli, we will almost certainly find ourselves in a very large hall where we can neither see nor hear well, and it will probably cost a lot of money. By contrast, for less money than the concert ticket, we can have Cecilia Bartoli singing us a private concert, anywhere and at any moment we choose, and in the most perfect acoustics. She’ll even sing for us as we drive our car home. And when we get home, we can not only listen to her but also watch her sing for us in our lounge. We can even choose what songs she will sing, and switch her off when we’ve had enough. This is a wonderful thing for listeners  – and for Cecilia  – but not for all the other singers in the world. While Cecilia has an audience of millions and a wonderful career (which she fully deserves), it is becoming increasingly difficult for anybody less magnificent to find a willing public.

Not only can we listen to the best music and performers anytime, anywhere, with the utmost convenience and basically for free, we are also nowadays permanently bombarded by music that we don’t want to listen to. Music has become noise pollution. In shops, restaurants, parking buildings, in the street, in lifts ………… everywhere now is incessant, intrusive, unavoidable, annoying music. Instead of music being a rare moment of magic, it is now silence that has become a magical rarity!

So while playing standards have risen tremendously, audience interest for live concerts by anybody but the most well-known international recording artists has diminished, giving rise to the situation where musicians are playing better and better, but for fewer and fewer people. In so far as playing is concerned, for 99% of all cello players, the future of music is mostly amateur. We will be playing mostly for our own pleasure and for that of our friends and families. But is this really a problem?

Music is identical to most other artistic or sporting activities in the sense that, for more and more of humanity, our experience of these wonderful activities is simply as consumers, spectators or buyers. We prefer to watch (or listen to) professionals doing our favourite activities fantastically well rather than actually doing those activities ourselves (much less well). Compare the experience of playing a game of football with friends, to the experience of watching (with the same friends) a fantastic top-class match. Playing the friendly game requires a lot more effort and is much more healthy in every way (physically, socially, psychologically) than the experience as a spectator. Unfortunately, the tendency is that people are playing less and less sport, but watching more and more which is totally unhealthy. Exactly the same situation occurs with music.

At the same time that it has become increasingly easy to be a spectator, it has also become increasingly intimidating to actually do things ourselves, because we know that we will be criticised and compared (unfavourably) to the best in the world, by the ever-more-abundant-and-well-informed armchair critics, including ourselves! Instrumental training, like sports education (and education in general), has become focused on producing a professional elite, to the detriment of a more relaxed, enjoyment-based education. It is as though only the highest achievements of the elite matter and the lesser achievements of everybody else are worthless, insignificant, a waste of time and a failure.

This is a great shame because the main benefits of music, sport, artistic activities, and of education in general, should be:

Instead of these emotionally healthy priorities we now find that the motivations for many of these activities are:

Put another way, if we want to learn and play music (or do any other activity) in an emotionally healthy way, our most important goal should ideally not be our professional or financial success (compensating and validating a long period of intense suffering), but rather a constant enhancement of personal and social well-being. In other words, our most fundamental goal in teaching or learning music should be the happiness of the “doer” or at least the reduction of the suffering in their existence.

How unfortunate it is then that so often the demands of perfection and quality associated with professionalism actually create existential (and physical) suffering in the “doer” (see Musicians Injuries and Psychology). The saying “music calms the soul” may be true for the listeners but is not at all valid for most professional musicians in their working lives! As with professionals in most highly competitive fields, the human price of high achievement is often also very high, especially for those who have to work hard to keep up. Amongst high-level musicians, the commonly found narcissistic cocktail of self-centeredness and lack of empathy is not only a defence mechanism to cope with the high demands of professional musicianship (most notably Stagefright) but can almost be considered a common work-induced-illness risk factor for all professional and aspiring musicians in that single-minded, never-ending quest to play well (and better than the competition) in even the most unfavourable circumstances.

But narcissism is what happens when things are going well! When things start to go badly, then insecurity, anxiety, depression and other “nasties” can rapidly attack this armour from the inside. Becoming (and staying) a happy, healthy, relaxed, easy-going professional musician is at times like being a mountaineer walking along a narrow ridge with a steep fall on either side. Gravity is not on our side, there is no safety net, and the higher we go, the colder it gets, the narrower the path becomes and the greater the fall on all sides! The Chinese have a saying: “it’s cold at the top”, which sums up very succinctly and with great wisdom, the sacrifices that often need to be made to get to the highest level. There are plenty of Michael Jacksons out there in the classical music world: talented children with ambitious parents and teachers who ultimately become victims of their “luck”, losing their irreplaceable childhood and teenage years to the thrills of stage success but perhaps missing out on the informal, relaxed, “play” and “rough-and-tumble” so necessary to make a healthy, happy adult. This phenomenon is simply amplified with pop stars because their fame is much greater (and therefore more dangerous) than in the world of classical music. Michael Jackson is only one of the many hugely talented popular-music stars whose careers (and often their lives) finished far too early and in a bad way. We are not only “musicians”: we are also people, parents, partners, friends and colleagues, and when the demands of the profession are too high, all these other vital facets of our lives can suffer. Making music should be a deeply rewarding activity and we should never lose sight of this guiding principle, at every level of achievement.


One of the definitions of a “professional”, in any field, is someone who does it “exactly as it is supposed to be done” and one of the problems of being “a professional” musician is that the most important/significant members of the audience are considered to be those well-informed (and very demanding) “critics/experts”. Playing for such a demanding audience can easily convert concerts into exams which is a great shame for the musicians because, in fact, those super-knowledgeable critics probably only make up a tiny portion of most audiences. How different, and how much more enjoyable it is, to play for people who are hearing a piece for the first time or perhaps even coming to a concert for the first time ! This also, is one of the elements that gives more pleasure to amateur music-making: the audience is not there to criticise but rather to enjoy the experience.


While the opportunities for playing professionally are diminishing rapidly, teaching is a completely different story. For people of all ages, learning how to make music, at an amateur level, is a very constructive, healthy and pleasurable activity – much more so than just listening to it. Music not only “calms the soul” of the amateur player, it also humanises and softens us, breaking down communication barriers of all types. Music really is a shared language, unique to the Homo Sapiens species (well not really – think about birds, whales etc), no matter what our skin colour or cultural beliefs. When we sing (or play) we become one with all other humans – with the universe even. It is curious that many of the most militaristic, intolerant, nationalistic, and aggressive politicians throughout history have been tone-deaf, incapable of singing, and completely devoid of musical sensitivity.

In a just and humane society, the enormous advances in technology and computing that are occurring should ultimately enable all people to have more free time to devote to meaningful and pleasurable activities such as music-making. Teaching (helping) people to become amateur musicians, in a kind and patient way, is a noble and wonderful profession – and one with considerably more future than trying to be a full-time performer !! (see Pedagogy). I dream of a world in which people switch off their televisions, computers, phones, and wars, to play music together ……. for pleasure (fun). Playing music with other people is probably one of the ultimate (highest) forms of adult “play” and – surprisingly for the relatively non-playful english language – our word for “making music” (play) says it all. Amateur ensemble playing has to be where the greatest benefits of music to society and the individual lie, and it is this belief that fuels almost the entire motivation for the creation of the website.