How to speak ‘musician.’

We musicians are a strange lot. There are good reasons for this, of course. Starting in early childhood, we tend to spend many hours every day locked in solitude, practicing the same music over and over (and over.) As we get older, it gets worse: we start to hang around other musicians. And then the real fun begins.

For the non-musician, it can seem…odd. Not only are we fluent in the sometimes mysterious language of music, but we also have our own language. Yes, ‘Musician’ is an ancient tongue which rarely translates well. It comes with its own customs and habits which can seem rather unusual to the outsider. For example, imagine that you are standing around a college campus somewhere in early to mid summer. You see a line forming and realize that the international music festival begins today; ah, these must be the students waiting for registration! Two people holding violin cases begin to talk, and this is what you hear (A: Violinist No. 1, B: Violinist No. 2):

  1. A.      Hi.
  2. Hi
  3. A.      How’s it going?
  4. Good! How are you?
  5. C.      Oh, good, thanks. Wow, that’s a nice case—got it from Shar?

Yes! It’s new. I like yours, too.

Thanks! So, where do you study?

I’m at Oberlin. You?

Oh, I’m at Eastman.

Nice…undergrad or grad?

Grad. You?


Ah. So what are you working on these days?

Well, for solo rep, I’m doing the Chaconne, Tchaik and Dvorak concerti and the ‘Spring’ sonata. Oh, and I’m hoping to do Paganini 24, too—I need it for my recital. And I’ll be taking auditions this fall so I really need to work on Mendelssohn and Schumann scherzos.

Good stuff. I’m working on the C major fugue, Tchaik and Brahms, and Paganini 20 and 21. I empathize on the Schumann—man, I can’t find any good bowings! But the thing that really gets me is Don Juan. Kicks my butt.

Oh, well, I have good bowings for Schumann and Don Juan. Maybe we will end up in the same studio!

That’d be cool. Hey, by the way, I’m Sally. What’s your name?


Could you keep up? The two were talking about school and repertoire—but maybe most telling is the fact that the name was the last thing to come up! This is not unusual at all. Lines of questioning when meeting a musician usually go in this order: What do you play, where did you study, where are you playing now, do you know (name of mutual friend here), what’s your name?

Yup, it’s a strange world, all right. And you’ll find that we need to be spoken to carefully. Below I have compiled a list of comments and questions posed by non-musicians to classical musicians.


Did you go to Juilliard?” (Note: you are excused if you ask this in New York City, especially if you’re standing anywhere near Lincoln Center while asking.)

First: Bravo! We’re thrilled that you know about Juilliard. Sincerely, we are. And we’re flattered that you asked. After all, Juilliard is the most famous school of music in the world—and everyone seems to know how exclusive it is.

But did you know that there are other music colleges, too? And there are some very, very good ones: some as good as (or, sacrilegious as it may seem to say, even better than, in the opinion of some) The Juilliard School. But please, if we say no, don’t give us a pitying, quizzical or disappointed look! From the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia (which is even more exclusive than Juilliard) to the Peabody Institute in Baltimore, the Eastman School of Music in Rochester to the San Francisco Conservatory, America is filled with top notch music schools (we call them conservatories.) And there are plenty more—too many to mention, especially when including university programs, such as Indiana University and Rice, which have conservatory level programs. And if we didn’t go to Juilliard, we aren’t necessarily disappointed about it. Many factors go into choosing a place to study.

Where did you study? is a great way to ask—and gives us a chance to rave about our alma mater.


“You’re a musician? Did you go to college?”

This one hurts. I mean this in the least snobby way possible: We’re professional musicians and artists. It takes a ton of study to become even a decent musician, let alone world-class. Yes, we went to college. Yes, we had to study. No, we didn’t just sit around practicing all day—we had to take classes on music theory, music history, western literature, foreign languages (usually French, Italian and/or German, and sometimes Russian), ear training, form and analysis, harmony and counterpoint. That doesn’t even get into extremely specific courses such as Renaissance music, ethnomusicology, orchestration, pedagogy; post-romantic chromaticism…the list goes on and on. And besides all that practice, we have a mountain of repertoire to learn, perfect and perform in front of our peers in studio classes and auditions, ensembles, master classes…and lessons. Did I mention lessons? Ah yes, lessons: an hour a week with a world-renowned master whose recordings you’ve worshipped since you were 8. Glamorous—and often terrifying. Yes, we went to college.


“Can you make a living as a musician?”

One word: Argh! Do not, under any circumstances, ask a musician this question. It is the Red Button of questions. Just don’t do it.

The answer? Yes, we can make quite a nice living. The real answer? Sure, it is possible, but it is incredibly hard. And at a certain point, it has little, if anything, to do with talent (more on that later.) There are ‘secure’ jobs in the field. You can be a soloist or major conductor, making 5 or 6 figures per performance, landing lucrative recording deals, going from one major city to the next, your name alone enough to draw huge crowds, win friends, influence people, make women want you and men want to be you. That’s the 1%. Actually, that is more like 1% of 1%.

Then you have the 9 to 5ers (not really, but the equivalent of that in our field.) These are the elite chamber ensembles, top level recitalists, mega-star professors and tenured members of major orchestras. They make a great salary and benefits* (subject to a healthy and responsible board), enjoy prestige in their community (and often beyond) and have pretty good job security (for musicians, anyway.) This is the 5%, maybe the 10%.

The rest of us?

Well, there’s teaching. And there’s gigging. Gigging can range from weddings and bar mitzvahs to being principal at a regional orchestra. And there’s…well, that’s pretty much it. Once upon a time one could ‘gig’ and make a very good living. Now? Not so much.

So yes, it is possible—now, please stop asking silly questions and let us get back to practicing….


I don’t see what the big deal is…I mean, you get to do what you love, and it isn’t any harder to find a job than in any other professions.’

Sorry to say this, but you could not be more wrong. Well, half wrong. Yes, we get to do what we love! But a note on this: being a symphony musician is a job. You work long hours (have you ever tried to sit through a 3 hour orchestra rehearsal? 3-4 days a week?) doing something that can harm your body. Holding a violin or viola is a very un-natural thing for the human body to do. Playing a wind or brass instrument means forcing huge amounts of air through tiny holes. And percussion? Have you heard how loud those guys can be?!

An orchestra rehearsal is anything but low-stress. With 100 egos (musicians) led by one super, gigantic, titanic tyrant (the conductor), there is potential for…disagreement. Sometimes everyone gets along. Sometimes there is stress. Other times…well, let’s not go there. Everyone wants to be perfect, but there are frequently different definitions of ‘perfection’ to be found within an orchestra. (Roughly 100, sometimes 101.) Bringing that into one voice is possible, but it makes those three hours go by less quickly than one might imagine.

And did I mention that it can be loud?

What does one have to do to win this job, you may ask? Besides the old joke of putting a $5000.00 instrument in a $500.00 car to drive 50 miles for $50.00, it is a trying process. The applicant is one of several hundred resumes from highly qualified musicians all over the world. If one is fortunate, one is among the 50 or so chosen to audition live—assuming they can pay airfare and hotel to go to the audition, of course. Weeks or months go by, during which time the applicant spends hours and hours every day practicing the same dozen or so pieces over and over, working for perfection. Then the audition arrives: a job which can be yours if you make zero mistakes while being asked to play perfectly, passionately and expressively in complete anonymity (behind a screen.) And then, if you make it through each round and are awarded the job, you have another year (or two, or even three) to prove that you get to keep the job. If not, it is goodbye, back into the audition pool. So, no, no pressure at all.


La Boheme is a total ripoff of ‘Rent’” (Submitted by Karen Luna, opera singer)

You may notice that there are some operas which have plots that are strikingly similar to Broadway musicals. This is not a chicken and egg moment. The opera came first.


Oh, yeah, I mean I don’t HATE classical music…I listen to it sometimes.” (Nikki Airhart, violinist.)
or this variation “Oh, I like listening to classical music sometimes…it is so relaxing.”

We’re glad that you’ve listened to classical music. Really, we are! But a lukewarm enthusiasm can be deflating. First, we want to talk to you about it: we want to share it with you, to be listened to, for you to react and ask questions. But reducing it to one element—‘relaxing’ is pretty generic—is frustrating. Instead, ask us about some of our favorite pieces or composers (and use the term ‘piece’—never use the word song, unless you are specifically referring to art songs.) I guarantee you that our eyes will light up, we’ll launch into a passionate discussion, and we may even hug you. Ask this question and you’re also likely to come away with a list of pieces to listen to (though probably not Pachelbel’s ‘Canon,’ especially if you’ve just spoken to a cellist.)


So there you have it: a crash course on how to speak musician. Questions and comments are most welcome!



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