Why you need to think carefully before deciding you want to be a musician, says composer Warren Lee

By Warren Lee

As music director of St Paul's Co-educational College and an award-winning composer, Warren Lee knows what it takes to make music your career

By Warren Lee |

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Warren Lee presents music career options, including teaching. Here he is (third from left) with some of his students: (standing, left to right) Jonathan Ma, Lauren Yuen, Dominic Law; (seated) Alison Kwok, Claudia Ng, Helen Yu

It can be fun to take those career path tests, to see what professions you are most suited to, at least according to some computer algorithms. But for some professions, like being a musician, those tests are quite unnecessary.

In truth, most musicians I meet have never needed career advice, as music is one of those professions where evidence of aptitude and expertise must show itself and be cultivated at an early age. According to psychologist K. Anders Ericsson, some 10,000 hours of deliberate practice must have been clocked by the age of 18, for musicians or athletes to achieve "expert" level.

As someone who was never on the receiving end of any meaningful career advice, I have nevertheless given more than my fair share of advice to the next generation in my capacity as a music director over the past decade.

The world of classical music has been evolving quicker than ever during this time, and I find myself learning something new about my profession every time I give advice to an aspiring musician.

What music graduates do

The idea of being a musician can mean very different things to people from different backgrounds, cultures and generations. The father of legendary conductor Leonard Bernstein initially rejected his son's pursuit of a career in music, as he considered life as a musician to be only slightly better than the life of a beggar.

Admittedly though, touring the world performing the Tchaikovsky concerto in a fancy dress or classy tuxedo, and becoming rich and famous, is not always the reality of what it is like to be a performing musician.

My first task, therefore, is to show how many diverse career possibilities related to music there are. From my personal network of friends and colleagues who hold a music degree, there are the soloists and orchestral musicians, but also music therapists, arts administrators, musicologists, critics and journalists; DJs, film scorers, song writers and record producers; as well as music teachers at schools and private instrumental tutors.

Do you love to teach?

Most who come to me want to be a performer - be it a soloist or an orchestral musician. The reality is that only an extremely small number of music graduates can make a living solely from performing. Acquiring a degree in music - despite having the word "performance" printed on your diploma - is almost an automatic step towards a career in teaching.

Naturally, you must ask yourself whether teaching is a calling, particularly of young children and beginners, which requires a level of patience quite different from learning the Tchaikovsky concerto.

Before and above all else, I highlight this inevitable teaching component of the music profession, and strongly urge you to explore and experience working with young children to get a feel for what it is like to have that lifestyle. You'll go from one home or studio to another, work somewhat unsociable hours, repeat pretty much the same comments and teach the same old Suzuki tunes over and over again. Imagine, also, doing this six or even seven days a week, for your entire career, and realise there will be limited room for career advancement or professional development.

American politician Condoleezza Rice was studying music performance at university; but in her second year, she attended a prestigious summer festival where she realised that, although she was good, she was not good enough to have a performing career. She said, "I just don't want to be a piano teacher", and changed her major after that. The rest is, as they say, history. She went on to become, among other things, the US secretary of state and the provost of Stanford University. What foresight!

Warren Lee then (left), and now. He knows a thing or two about practice. Photo: Oliver Tsang/SCMP

Do your research
Just as a financial adviser is obligated to inform his clients of all potential risks before signing them up for an investment product, I feel equally responsible to present my rational analysis of the profession, probably influenced (some say, corrupted) by my year in business school.

After all, dedicating four years of your life to study something in such depth, not to mention the rising costs of university education, is undoubtedly the most substantial investment a person can make. So it would be silly not to do your research and learn about the potential risks.

I once invited Professor Michael Friedmann of Yale University to speak to my students at St Paul's on the topic, "Opportunities and Challenges for the Aspiring Musicians in the 21st Century". Frankly, I do not recall much of the content of his presentation, except the fact that he spent the entirety of his talk exclusively on the "challenges" part. Ever since, I have been collecting stories and articles, mostly about the growing list of bankrupting orchestras and record companies. These articles have now become mandatory reading assignments for my students. I also keep a copy of Robert J. Flanagan's The Perilous Lives of Symphony Orchestras on the bookshelf, which illustrates the struggles faced by orchestras with concrete data, just in case any strong-willed individuals like to challenge the idea.

Supply and demand

The number of graduates in professional fields like law, medicine and architecture are somewhat calculated and controlled in accordance to the law of supply and demand. As a result, those who are good enough to get into these university programmes are almost guaranteed promising career prospects. For the field of music, there are approximately 400 students graduating with a degree in music (undergraduate and postgraduate) every year in Hong Kong, compared to around the same number graduating from medical schools. Do we really need the same number of performing musicians as we do doctors in the Hong Kong workforce? While this question may be oversimplified, I nonetheless present you with this hypothesis, "there are more music graduates in the world than it needs", for your own debate. At the very least, it should motivate you to practise harder.

All about the money

Presuming that most music graduates go on to become private tutors, I do not worry too much about them not being able to make a living, at least in Hong Kong. Some indeed do very well, so long as they are passionate about teaching.

As for those wanting to be a performer, I salute them; but at the same time, they must understand that the odds of going to a music school and landing a steady orchestral job or launching a solo performing career upon graduation is not unlike a student going into a law school and expecting to be a supreme court judge. The only difference is that you do not hear about bankrupting supreme courts!

The 'amateur' option

It is usually at this point in my career talk that I also throw in a few anecdotes about personal friends who "jumped ship" from the profession of music to others in search of greener financial pastures. I do not judge, neither should anyone, those who choose material substance (or simply put, stability) over the arts. It is a matter of priority in life, and a decision that everyone is both entitled to, and must ultimately make. Before committing to the music profession, you must be sure that there is absolutely nothing else you either want to do, or can do, to make a living.

While you may find life without playing music unbearable and unimaginable, doing it to make money is a different matter. Music is something you can pursue very seriously as an amateur; and being an amateur does not necessarily mean you aren't as good as professional musicians or don't enjoy it as much as them. It only means that you do it out of love and don't depend on it to pay bills. In fact, the pleasure I derive from playing with amateurs is often many times greater and purer.

Journalist Alan Rusbridger dedicated a year of his life to master the invincible Chopin's First Ballade on the piano while keeping his daytime job as the editor of The Guardian. This fascinating journey, as told in his book, Play It Again: An Amateur Against the Impossible, provides both inspiration and reassurance that music enriches the lives of "non-professionals" no less wonderfully and magically.

If you have talents and interests in other fields in addition to your inclination towards music, I recommend you explore those other areas with the same diligence and research, or consider the option of pursuing a double degree. If, in the end, it is another discipline you decide to pursue, you can still choose a school or a city where there is greater exposure to music and access to a good teacher. This just gives you a more diverse range of skills.

By this point, students are normally as drained as they are awe-struck by my seeming pessimism and apparent deterrence that arises from such thorough research.

"So, you still want to be a musician?"

If you can look me in the eye and say "yes" with determination, then I am truly happy for you. "Good!" I would say, "because I have yet to speak of the intangible return."

I do consider myself extremely lucky to be doing what I love for a living, and as creativity expert Ken Robinson would say, I have found my element, "where natural talent meets personal passion". Why should I be denying such pleasure to those who come to seek my advice?

For what other professions …

  • allow you to dedicate yourself to something so amazing, which can describe the indescribable?
  • give you both the privilege and responsibility to safeguard some of mankind's greatest masterpieces by the likes of Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms?
  • bring you such immense gratification while working that, at times, you don't want it to end?
  • empower you to make a stranger's day brighter without the need for words?
  • help you discover more pleasure each time you repeat the exact same work?
  • take you to different places and cultures where you can still communicate, in the deepest sense of the word?
  • make it a norm to get together with your colleagues and work overtime for fun?
  • reach so deep inside you that you could shed tears of joy and sorrow at the same time without knowing why?
  • use the verb "play" to describe their work?

I am grateful to be a musician (and to be a teacher, too, for that matter). So, knowing what you now know, do you still want to be a musician?

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