Walking into graduate school on day one can seem freeing, and in other ways overwhelming. Finally, you have the practice time you have long desired. Finally, there are no advisors and professors telling you exactly what you should be doing all of the time. Finally, you are given most of the deciding power in what kind of music you want to play, and what you want to say through your music. However, with this newfound sense of freedom, most new graduate students can feel lost, confused, overwhelmed, or unmotivated once they are left to do things on their own. Believe me, I have been there, and I still struggle with these same feelings. It is my hope that some of my successes and failures can come to guide new graduate students in “choosing their own adventure” that will set them up for a sustainable and enjoyable career in the arts. Here are some things to think about that may help to enlighten your path as a new graduate student:
Find what you are passionate about, and do that!
As musicians, we’ve all had the experience of playing repertoire or concerts that we were not feeling connected to or passionate about. And how do we often feel when we are preparing for these concerts? Not inspired, depressed, frustrated? The simple truth is that when we perform music that we are passionate about, we play more musically, we play with passion, and we inspire audiences. Nobody wants to hear a performance that we feel “just ok” about. These performances don’t contain the same passion and the same emotional connection. So remember this when you are offered opportunities in your first semester. Find what you are passionate about, and pursue that relentlessly.
Not sure what your direction is yet? That’s ok! Survey your options.
Nobody is expecting you to walk into your first semester in graduate school knowing exactly what you want to do with your career and knowing exactly what kind of artist you want to be. This is the point of being in school! The extra freedom in graduate school allows you to take a part in as many or as few opportunities as you want! If you’re feeling unsure about what your adventure is going to be, my advice is to say yes to as many opportunities as possible and test out the waters. By doing this, you can find what you like, who you want to work with, and what styles you want to perform. And who knows, you may even find some new opportunities or areas of work that you have never considered.
The 50/50 Split: Art and Entrepreneurship
Too often, I see graduate students spending all of their free time locked in a practice room. Although this does yield massive improvements in performance, as a twenty-first century musician this tends to limit your artistic exposure and connections outside of the School of Music. What I have found to be beneficial in my late years of undergraduate study and the first year of graduate study is the importance of splitting my available time; a 50/50 split between creating art and marketing the art that I create. Entrepreneurship is an essential skill of the 21st-century musician, whether you want to be an orchestral player, a soloist, or a chamber music performer. What does spending time on marketing your art look like? Try out some of these things, learn from others, and expand your knowledge.
Don’t forget to have a social life!
If I had a dollar for every time I have heard the phrase “it’s more so who you know than what you know”... we’ve all heard it before! Although this may seem like a simple concept to grasp, it is often lost as graduate students continue to lock themselves in a practice room for the majority of their day. NEVER underestimate the power of strong friendships within the music community. You must dedicate some of your time to get out of the practice room, spend time with friends, meet new people, interact in the community, and have fun. In time, these friendships will bring you more bookings, more exposure to new ideas, and the beginnings of a loyal fan base to attend your concerts. But just remember… friendships and connections are a two-way street; so attend your friends’ concerts, be their loyal fan, and always support them as they support you.
The four pieces of advice that I have discussed above are drawn directly from my experience as a first-year graduate student that is trying to find my own way as an artist. Each one of you is different, and therefore each one of you is going to find your own passions, your own adventures, and your own ways forward. But if you are struggling, I urge you to come back here and think about some of these things. Graduate school can be very overwhelming, but it does not have to be! I hope that your graduate school experience at The University of Illinois is a time of great discovery and passionate performance!
Andrew J. Buckley