It’s Time For ‘The Talk’

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I remember the day I received “The Talk”. At 15 years old, I was just starting to realize that I wanted to be a professional musician. After feeling the thrill of youth orchestras and the exhilaration of summer music festivals, it was evident to me that this is how I wanted to spend my life. I informed my violin teacher that I wanted to audition for a music conservatory and then spend my life in either the Boston Symphony or maybe Chicago. I told him that “I’d like to be concertmaster” and that is what sparked the need for “The Talk.”

My teacher’s talk to me was an attempt to bring reality into my life without crushing my dreams.

“You know classical music is a difficult business, right?” he said. “You can work and practice until you are as good as you think possible and it still might not be enough. The competition is stiff, and do not kid yourself, everybody wants it just as bad as you do. If you are lucky and talented enough to get a job, you still might not make enough to live on. Sometimes having a job doesn’t offer any security either; orchestras go out of business.”

I had an understanding of how orchestras go out of business. About the same time I received “The Talk”, the Denver Symphony was having troubles, and finally collapsed. I remember thinking “that couldn’t possibly happen to me, I was better than that!” I looked at my teacher like he was crazy and I felt moderately annoyed that he felt the need to offend me with such negativity. And off to conservatory I went.

It turns out, of course, that my teacher was right. Once I had a few years behind me in music school, I saw the competition and the lack of jobs. Of course I couldn’t possibly admit to my old teacher that he was right. I just had to practice and work hard to win a job…to prove to him that he was wrong.

I had completely forgotten “The Talk” until last week. My teenage violin student had just informed me that she received first chair in a state orchestra and now wants to consider a career in music. She said, “I think it would be fun to sit in rehearsals all day, practice at home, and play concerts.”

While the competition is just as stiff now as it was then, the orchestra jobs aren’t as “safe” as when I was her age. So I asked her if she would like to think about something besides performing in an orchestra. Her answer was no, so that is what sparked her “talk.” Just like for me, she needed to know of the challenges an orchestral career could have. To walk into this field with no idea of problems is careless and irresponsible.

To this day, I am thankful my teacher was frank with me. Had I blindly entered this field, I most certainly would have failed or have been very disappointed. It does bother me that the topic was not covered in my college conservatory though. Too often colleges are just concerned with taking money and pushing out talent. I wonder how much more healthy this music industry would be if colleges took a more active role in training students to be aware of the pitfalls of the music profession.

I must say that it was absolutely surreal for me to be on the giving end of “The Talk.” Although I did not want to squash the dreams of a talented violin student, watching many good friends who are members in the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra get locked out made me realize that I needed to make sure my student was going into the business with her eyes open.

She gave me the same sort of look I gave my teacher 15 years ago but that was okay, if she’s fortunate she’ll be giving that talk to one of her students in 15 years.

About Holly Mulcahy

After hearing Scheherazade at an early age, Holly Mulcahy fell in love with the violin and knew it would be her future. She currently serves as concertmaster of the Wichita Symphony Orchestra and the Chattanooga Symphony Orchestra. She spends her summers at the celebrated Grand Teton Music Festival. Believing in music as a healing and coping source, Holly founded Arts Capacity, a charitable 501(c)3 which focuses on bringing live chamber music, art, artists, and composers to prisons. Arts Capacity addresses many emotional and character-building issues people face as they prepare for release into society. Holly performs on a 1917 Giovanni Cavani violin, previously owned by the late renowned soloist Eugene Fodor, and a bespoke bow made by award winning master bow maker, Douglas Raguse.

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2 thoughts on “It’s Time For ‘The Talk’”

  1. Well said Holly. It’s part of our responsibility to pupils to have that frank discussion with them regarding the pitfalls they will encounter should they choose the musicians path. I remember my teacher, Ron, giving me the talk. And I’ve always been grateful for his assessment of the field.

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  2. On the contrary, my teacher’s advice upon graduation from Curtis was” Now you and go play chamber music with your friends”. Not helpful, I hope Curtis is doing a better job with career advice.

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