Preparing to Become a Professional Musician Part 3

John Hagstrom


No matter how much dedication you have for improving, it is inevitable that you will eventually feel unmotivated to do the work you know is necessary. At these times it is important to take short breaks to recover your energy. Sometimes resting is all that is needed to restore ourselves, but there are other things we can do that generate motivation.  For some people, listening to a few minutes of inspiring music restores their strength. For others it is most helpful to meditate on important truths they have learned earlier in their lives. Some people just need to spend quiet time that is deliberately unfocused in order to be restored.  For you it may be a combination of all of these things, in addition to other remedies not mentioned.

Whatever your preferred method is for restoring yourself, three things are important to remember:

--Self-motivation takes practice to develop. Just like it takes practice to learn any other new technique on your instrument, building an agile and speedy technique for recovering from stress starts slowly—but gains virtuosity as you work on it each day. In the same way that practicing with a metronome is a prescription for playing faster, you can also develop self-prescriptions for gaining the speed and depth of restored motivation. “I just couldn’t practice this week” is not an excuse. Restore yourself before you feel like you can’t do any more and you will keep your momentum going!

--Make sure that you are choosing a healthy way to recover from stress. There are some much less productive choices people make in the hope of restoring themselves, such as substance abuse, skipping classes, etc. Even if you have successfully avoided these more extreme options you still may be choosing to recover in unhealthy ways. If you become destructively critical of other students and/or professionals as a way to take the focus off of your own worries and challenges, you are making the wrong choice. It is also unhealthy to talk to yourself in a destructively critical way. We all get discouraged at times, but we also need to check to see that we don’t let that feeling grow into hopelessness.

--It is not the responsibility of your teacher or your school to motivate you. You may have had an educational experience up to this point within which your teachers kept after you and pushed you to do your work. College can be almost the exact opposite. Your professors should encourage you and be available for you as a resource for improvement—but it is not their job to make you want to learn and improve. Part of what must be learned within the environment of higher education is the ability to organize and sustain your efforts without the need for an authority figure to keep reminding you of what must be accomplished today. This is one of the most valuable skills to develop as part of your musical training, and one that many students do not learn deeply enough for turning their goals into professional success. 


The reality of performing professionally differs greatly from what students usually experience as they progress through school. Here are some main points to remember:

Professional musicians are not a family. The strong emotions contained in music can make you feel like you are part of a family along with the rest of those who perform intensely expressive music. In school, students perform with friends who often are a strong source of support through difficult times. Schools can also give students second chances as a matter of course, and committed teachers often explain to students what mistakes were made and how to do better next time. The people with whom you work professionally, however, most often are not loyal friends despite shared background experiences and common acquaintances. If your playing or professionalism does not meet the expected standards of the particular group with which you have been hired to play, the players around you may tell you that you did well, but privately comment to one another about what they did not like about you and/or your performance. This happens frequently in professional circles, and players are dismissed without explanation.

Professional music making is not “fair”. It is up to you to be critically analytical of your own playing and aware of areas in which you need to improve. By making sure to be competent and prepared in good faith, the professional workplace can be made more collegial and collaborative. Unfortunately, even steadfast competence is not always enough; and for reasons that are truly unfair players are sometimes dismissed without a clear explanation or just cause. As students, it is reasonable to expect fairness and suitable recourse when something unfair has occurred. However, as you’ve surely heard before,“life isn’t fair”, and professional music making is no exception.


Music making is bigger than you. Many aspiring musicians can have difficulty becoming motivated by any idea larger than their own self-interest. As young musicians we are often gratified initially by the praise we receive, and the decision to pursue a musical career can accordingly be made in the hope of a life filled with similar gratification. There is nothing wrong with enjoying personal praise from others, but left unchecked that enjoyment can develop into a lifelong obsession for proving one’s superiority. This obsession is sometimes disguised elaborately, but originates nonetheless from the need to be dominant. Musicians that always get the praise they expect may never find another reason for performing, but it is wise to strive for a more thoughtful outlook on what great music making accomplishes for others too.

When musicians decide to work together to find common ground, beauty and transformational energy come to life. The best moments for professional musicians are when their collective emotional expressions move listeners to be transformed by the energy, beauty, and maturity of the concert experience. Even the most jaded person has a hard time resisting the energy and inspiration of people working together, freely choosing congruity over conflict. Personal disagreements and resentments are put on hold, and the evidence of their successful effort is when listeners feel musical connection and transformation. A great professional musician is the personification of this understanding.

We are more than the sum of our parts. More than any individual musician performing alone, groups of highly accomplished musicians transmit feelings of urgency, triumph, lament, vulnerability, rage, exuberance, and a thousand other shades of emotion that make up our collective humanity.  Professional musicians are blessed to experience these great musical moments together. No matter what opinion they may share about a conductor or other working condition, conscientious professionals make the best music possible in every moment. For me personally this shared commitment is the most gratifying aspect of being a member of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. It is my hope that you will find this same truth for yourself—it may be the most important thing to learn from all of your musical training!