Music school, freelancing, and "winning"

Here’s the thing about freelancing. 

In music school, you learn how to do auditions. You learn how to do auditions because you do a lot of them; at least one a year, maybe two, just to be ranked in your core ensembles, plus plenty of others; youth orchestras, summer festivals, big solos, professional orchestras. If you do it right, you get pretty good at auditions. You acquire an internal locus of control vis a vis auditions, and maybe even start to enjoy them. 

By the end of music school, though, you’ve acquired not just an aptitude for auditions, but some specific ideas about their outcomes. Because school auditions aren’t like other auditions. One person doesn’t win and the others walk away with nothing. One person wins, more or less, and the next few people still get something pretty good, and the rest get a place at the bottom of the totem pole. If you school experience works for you, it’s likely that you start right at the bottom, and work your way up to the top, or near the top, as you advance. It’s a real good feeling. Having a hierarchy can be scary— but it can also be comforting. For the duration of your time in music school, you can point to a list of names on the wall and say “look! This is me. This is where I fit. I am better than these people, and these other people are better than me. If I keep working, I will keep rising. Life is fair.”


The real world doesn’t work that way. First of all, obviously, that’s not how professional auditions work. The bottom 90% of candidates aren’t ranked; they’re just told to go home. The top 10% may well fall into a ranking (who got to the semis/finals/got a trial) but only one positions really matters, and it’s #1. 

Freelancing also doesn’t work like that, because not only is there no ranking, there’s no winner at all. Sure, there are people who get more gigs than other people. But how do you decide who wins? Is it the person who makes the most money? (Are they allowed to have a day job?) The person first on the sub list for the most prestigious ensemble? (Who decides what’s most prestigious? Does a symphony orchestra beat out an opera orchestra?) The person with the most students? (Are they actually a good teacher, or just enterprising?) There’s no way to decide. The ranking simply doesn’t exist. Everyone is just humans, trying to strike a balance between survival and artistic fulfillment. 

For a recent graduate of a music school with a defined system of ranking, this isn’t the relief one might think it would be. It’s like having the carpet yanked out from under your feet. Suddenly, you’re not owed anything. There’s not even anything you can do to become owed anything. And if you don’t wise up to that fact, things can get ugly. 

Instead of focusing on your own improvement, it’s easy to become subconsciously obsessed with reconstructing a ranking that never existed. Who’s in town? What gigs are they getting? Should I have gotten that gig? Wow, that person has a damn fine-lookin’ website. That person went to a better school than me, so they win over me. I once played with that person while they were having a bad day, so I win over them. Am I winning as much as I should be? How can I win more? A preoccupation with winning a nonexistent competition can be paralysing. When abstract victory is more important than concrete self-improvement, practice suffers. And when practice suffers, you guessed it… it sure don’t feel like winning.

Is this music school’s fault? Nah. The system by which most schools rank and place students in ensembles is fair, and for many people, effectively motivates improvement. It’s just one of those many ways in which school can’t, and maybe shouldn’t prepare you for the real world. 

So, folks, time to log off and go practice.