Guidelines for Navigating the Professional Music World

The professional music world can be a difficult place to navigate, with every gig and job presenting its own set of challenges. A panel of Oberlin Conservatory of Music faculty recently presented a professional development session for students entitled “Etiquette for musicians when their work environment becomes challenging.” Its focus was some of the more complex workplace questions and situations musicians may encounter in their professional lives. For anyone starting out in the business, here are key takeaways.

1. JOIN THE MUSICIAN’S UNION

As a young gigging musician, it’s important to know what your resources are and what channels to pursue in case an issue arises. “Get a good understanding of what your labor rights are,” recommends Chris Jenkins, assistant dean for Academic Support at Oberlin and a professional violist.

“Everyone should join the union if you’re a performing musician… you have very little economic power [as an individual],” he adds. While professional orchestras have personnel managers to act as liaison between musicians and management, freelance gigs often don’t have this structure. Any support and resources the musician’s union can provide will be beneficial to someone just starting out in the professional world.

2. SET BOUNDARIES

Ethnomusicologist Fredara Hadley splits her time between teaching courses on African American music and popular music at Oberlin Conservatory, and managing the website Musiqology.com and Jooksi (radio and music tours) in New York City. “What’s most important is that I get to continue to do the work I want to do,” she says. The most effective way to do that is to set boundaries.

“There’s not always a clear chain of command,” says Hadley. So it’s best to spot problematic situations before they become an issue. It’s important to communicate clearly and appropriately your values and what is and isn’t acceptable.

Hadley acknowledges that in the tight-knit world of music, “few things are rarely all work and are not personal.” You’re always going to be dealing with people, so it’s everyone’s responsibility to navigate the gray area.

What kind of team player you are and how you relate to your colleagues will be an important part of your success.

3. BE A TEAM PLAYER

The number one thing to remember in the professional world is that “people expect you to quickly become part of a team… what kind of team player you are and how you relate to your colleagues will be an important part of your success,” says Raphael Jimenez, director of Oberlin Conservatory Division of Conducting and Ensembles and associate professor of Conducting.

Knowing the culture of an institution or workplace environment and being able to assimilate while maintaining your own voice and values is key to a long-lasting and productive career. The music world is an incredibly small place made up of different communities of people, and the overlap between them is immense. As Tim Weiss, professor of Conducting  and music director of Oberlin’s Contemporary Music Ensemble, says: “Keep your bridges smoothly paved.”

4. FIND A MENTOR

When setting out as a young musician, it’s crucial to seek guidance from those more experienced, in case you encounter an issue or difficult decision. “It’s always good to find a mentor,” says Jimenez, “to find somebody that knows the place better than you who you can trust and who can give you guidance.”

Jenkins agrees, recommending aligning yourself with a mentor who shares your values. After finding and cultivating this relationship, “there’s an established level of trust, time, and valued contact,” adds Weiss. When faced with a complex situation, turning to someone who’s most likely been through the same thing is an invaluable course of action.

Ultimately, as in any business, it’s up to musicians themselves to make the tough calls. “The most important thing is that your standard is your standard,” says Jimenez. If something isn’t working for you in any job, trust your instincts and communicate the issue in a positive, constructive way. “Spend time trying to understand yourself,” adds Hadley. “Work and life demand you to be flexible, and how you work can help you avoid conflict or messy situations. Know where you thrive”.


Faith Roberts is a third-year student at Oberlin Conservatory of Music. Studying with Michael Strauss, she majors in Viola Performance and Music History and is a Conservatory communications student assistant.

Photo Credit: Kevin G Reeves

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