pianist and music director



Skills that actually matter: Introduction (I)

My happy corner of the world

My happy corner of the world

* this article is the first in a series of articles that explores skills, values and ideas to help you become a successful professional musician. 

We have all been there at some stage. You just finished your Bachelor of Music. Your instrument of choice was (insert unoriginal instrument such as piano/violin/guitar here). Fresh out of university, a whole new world awaits. You dream about it and you think you know a lot about this world you are headed into. They have told you how it will be: you are going to be a great soloist. You've got the chops, you've got the tools and you have the knowledge. You are going to kill it! (or are you...?)

Fresh piano graduate (see: me a few years ago). Out of your own initiative (I mean, the conservatory is not there anymore to organise these things for you), you decide that it is time to end your holidays aka few-months-of-figuring-shit-out after uni and decide to do something with your hard earned skills. For the delight of this culture-starved society, you are going put on a concert! You get very excited about it, and decide (obviously, the first thing you decide) the repertoire. Your first concert will include the amazing Goldberg Variations and some obscure Scriabin compositions from his final years, just because 'you love that shit'. You secure the venue - a church - you sell tickets at the door at $5 a pop (you kind of know, although refusing to acknowledge it out loud, that you are not that famous to charge what you think you are worth!) You hang some posters and create a Facebook event. You have yourself a concert - well, kind of.

You don’t need to be a soloist. You can be many things. Keep an open mind and take every opportunity that comes your way

The day arrives, 15 elder couples, a few family members and the two only friends who could cope with your lifestyle show up. The concert goes ok. You wrap up, count the moneys: you just made a whooping $200. 

Before you start the so much needed after-party, let's run some numbers:
It took you a couple months to prepare this concert. To achieve the level of mastery that you require of yourself, you practiced for 3-4 hrs every day. Taking weekends out and a few days where you were hungover, slacking off a bit or playing video-games, that comes down to, say, 30 days of really good practice. That's 120 hours of practice.

$200 divided by 120 equals: $1.66 per hour. That's what you made. Provided you got the venue for free, and not counting in the printing costs for the posters, the time it took you to arrange venue, you can pretty much cover the cost of the electricity you used whilst practicing. This is also known as paying-to-play. Ever heard of someone paying to work in an office? Neither.

Appalling, right?

What went wrong? Well, let's number a few things that could've gone better:

  1. Venue: The venue normally comes with some sort of audience attached to it, due to factors like transport, parking, area and - in this case - the ordinary use of the venue. Although this one was offered for free, by choosing a church, you directed your attention towards the wrong people. I am not saying that a church is a bad venue, on the contrary: great acoustics, great seating, cheap rates and, sometimes, even great instruments. Churches do the job, but you have to be careful. You are not famous (yet) and you depend on people who want to be distracted on the cheap. What I mean is that you totally missed the point with your...
  2. Repertoire: the Goldberg variations were composed to help said Goldberg fall asleep. Scriabin's latter compositions were composed to communicate with the universe! Are you out of your damn mind! Never forget that there are people there listening to you. We owe them a lot, and we refer to them as...
  3. Audience: you really thought that people would love your Scriabin. No, they don't. They don't know about prometheus chords, unresolved dominants and quartal and quintal harmony. You could've actually seized the chance to educate your audience, make it entertaining and engaging, maybe a few talks here and there to explain these poor people what's going on. Instead, you chose the dry and outdated classical recital format you grew up with. Anyway, this could've been your key selling point. You should've made this part of your...
  4. Promotion: Yes, your friends are very supportive, but when it comes to it (and my own empirical experience proves this, as I am sure yours does as well) when you promote yourself on Facebook, you are missing the point completely. Out of the 500 e-vites you sent, 80 replied back. 40 said no, 25 said interested, 15 said they would go. 3 turned up. Stop here for a second and look up: venue, repertoire, audience. Facebook was a good choice to let people know that you are not home doing nothing but living la boheme life. However, at your stage it does not to drive ticket sales. Based on who you are right now, you are more likely to get people to come to your concert by talking to them. You could've tried the local congregation, the local primary school (see, it wasn't that bad an idea to give your promotion a pedagogical twist), the local aged care home, hospital... whatever. Humans, not 1/0s! All would've been fine though if you had adapted your...
  5. Expectations: because at the end of the day, you are a recent graduate with no name and no reputation (again, yet). And because of this, you suffer more than anyone involved - including those who endured your beautiful but incomprehensible Scriabin. We also risk losing another musician, because mental health is also important, and our society cannot really afford that!

I have made all these mistakes myself, and see many young students fresh out of uni making the same mistakes over and over. 

Now, I do understand that I might have oversimplified things a bit for the sake of narrative. Probably, now that you know the repertoire you can do a few more concerts here and there and make a name for yourself. You may charge a bit more or even find an agent, win a competition... That's how it works. The biggest issue is (dum da da daaaaa): life - as in bills, expenses, rent and food - it does not understand about the needs of your career. Neither does Time. Time to practice, time to organise, time to make a name, time to make it worth it.

Obviously there are many more things that you could've done to improve the outcome of your concert. As with many things in life, careful planning is the key to success in the music industry - not only when it comes to little concerts such as the one described above - but also when devising a career path, choosing what extra skills you should learn to get there and how to bring it all together. Planning is also critically important so you can reach the goal we all share -  make ends meet every month by doing what you love the most: music.

So, what do you do now? Here is the answer:

You don't need to be just a soloist. You can be many things. Keep an open mind, a positive attitude and take every opportunity that comes your way. Be professional and be ready to do the job. The rest will come by itself.

Although a simple statement, there is a whole bunch of skills and attitudes behind doing just that. This series of articles will try to shed some light into the issue of becoming a well-rounded professional musician by offering an insight into some of these alternative skills that will help you get there. I cannot show you how to make a million dollars, but I can try my best to provide you with some ideas on how to become the best musician you can possibly be, so you can live doing what you love. And that, my friends, it's worth all the money in the world.


Antonio Fernandez is a Sydney-based collaborative pianist and music director. You can contact him via Facebook, or via Twitter @Spanish_Pianist


Antonio Fernandez