How Classical Musicians Develop Alternate Careers

February 28, 2005

After a period of intense and focused learning and training, classical musicians face a job market that has limited opportunities to perform or teach. They have increasingly become aware that they can use the skills and values they learned in their musical education to forge careers outside of performance and education. What leads them to choose alternate careers? How do they make the transition? What are the skills they have transferred from their musical education into alternative careers? The three musicians interviewed here present different answers to these questions.

Politics and family background influenced the career path of violinist and Grammy award winning classical record engineer and producer Da-Hong Seetoo. He grew up in China during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), and learned how to repair his fathers illegal reel-to-reel tape recorder. Both his parents were musicians and Seetoo became a star student at the Shanghai Conservatory where he was discovered by Boston Symphony concertmaster Joseph Silverstein in 1979.

By the time he was a graduate student at Juilliard he was sought after to make audition tapes for his peers. People knew I was always tinkering with recordingsit came naturally, he said. When he graduated he tried life as a violin soloist, but it was lonely and unsatisfying. Six months later he was asked to fill in for a sick engineer who was recording the Bach Partitas for violinist Eugene Drucker of the Emerson Quartet.

Today Seetoos recording career is flourishing, and his musical education is essential to his success.

Violinist Lisa Kobialka took a different route to finding her career niche. She lost her job when the Sacramento Symphony Orchestra ceased operations. So after a year of touring with the San Francisco Operas Merola Orchestra and with her familys support (all musicians), she decided to pursue a law degree. I loved music but I didnt want it to be the only thing I could do. I have lots of musician friends who are struggling and feel bitter. They have other skills but choose not to use them. I didnt want music to be that way for me, she said.

Today Lisa is a Senior Associate in the law firm of Perkins Cole, an intellectual property litigation law firm. In law school I needed discipline and focus to study for hours, and having to practice musical passages over and over served me well. Although I am a shy person, Im a performer in the courtroom and, without my musical training, I wouldnt be good at it.

The career path of James Bulger, oboist, took another course. At age 10, James switched from playing the violin to the oboe at the request of the high school band director. By the time he graduated from high school, hed won two oboe competitions, played a concerto with the Seattle Symphony, and went on to Boston University to study with Ralph Gomberg. But nerves were a serious issue for him at auditions. I remember auditioning for a position with the Hartford Symphony. It seemed to me an unappealing city, and the salary was only $24,000 a year, Bulger said. I wasnt excited and didnt want to face playing in a Class B orchestra until I could get into a major orchestra, he said. He lost the audition.

About the same time he bought his first Honda and loved it. In 1987 he met a charismatic woman who was training people to sell Hondas on commission. In June of 1988 I sold 25 carsa top performer. Money was no longer a problem and I could still play when and where I wanted to, he related. Today James sells 500 cars a year and is principal oboist of the Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra in Boston. Its clear that he is as passionate about selling cars as he is about playing the oboe.

But there are regrets about not having a full time professional music career. Every time I see an opening for an oboist I say that could have been me. There is an emptiness in me that Im not doing it full time, Bulger admits. But at other times I think Im a pretty lucky guy. I earn a good living and still play the oboe when I want to. His musical experience has supported his sales career. Winning music competitions fueled his ferocious drive to be the best. He has the discipline to be persistent in the sales process, the integrity to make a promise and keep it, and the mathematical aptitude to find the best price for his customers.

These musicians have improvised, reinvented and transformed themselves using the transferable skills their musical training provided:

  • the discipline of learning to perform music;
  • the time management needed to balance practice time with lifes other demands;
  • the attention to detail needed to learn music, and
  • the need to accept criticism and integrate feedback into their lives.

The persistence and focus of performances contributed to Lisa Kobialkas success as a lawyer. Winning musical competitions gave James Bulger the motivation to become a top Honda car salesman.

Childhood interests, basic personality traits and family background also influence a music students career choices. Da-Hong Seetoo transformed his love for repairing audio equipment into a CD engineering and producing career. Lisa Kobialka initially resisted her fathers guidance away from a musical career into law but circumstances finally pointed her in that direction.

The career choices graduating music students have to make are complex. American music schools continue to provide their students with the best music education in the world. Its time to examine and acknowledge those music graduates who successfully transition into alternate careers outside of performing and teaching and beyond the music industry.

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