Dr Kate Blackstone is a music psychology researcher and musician based in the North of England. She recently graduated from the University of Leeds after completing a doctoral project investigating the career aspirations and transitions of conservatoire graduates. A conservatoire graduate herself, Kate studied at the RNCM before building a freelance music career, combining a busy teaching schedule with regular performances on the piano and the clarinet, her principal instrument. As a founder member of the Kaleidoscope Orchestra, Kate is equally at home playing to crowds of thousands of clubbers in Liverpool’s Sefton Park as she is playing contemporary music for fun amongst friends. She is passionate about empowering early career musicians to find their own success and create fulfilling musical careers within and outside of performance. You can connect with Kate on twitter via her profile:  



Congratulations, you made it to the end of your music college degree! You practised, you performed, you partied, you practised some more… and now what? Graduation is a time of anxiety for everyone, and few have it harder than performing arts graduates. In fact, many conservatoire graduates feel lost at the end of their degrees, wondering where to turn next or how to make the first steps in their career. If this sounds like you, you are not alone! Experienced musicians look back on their first few years out of music college and remember it as an unsettling time, and during my own research with establishing musicians, every single one of them mentioned uncertainty as part of their journey. In fact, some research suggests that freelancers in all industries experience uncertainty throughout their careers, eventually seeing it as something to be reckoned with and faced up to rather than overcome. I once heard someone describe their first years out of music college as ‘The Struggle.’ So can we overcome ‘The Struggle?’ If we can’t, how can we embrace it?

The following ten questions came from the findings of a four-year PhD project I undertook at the University of Leeds. When I began back in 2015, I was intrigued to know how 21st century musicians had built their careers. I’d learnt a lot at music college about ‘star players,’ and I’d taken a lot of advice from tutors who had built their careers 20 or 30 years previously, but I was still very much in the dark about how regular musicians like you or I had made their way into the profession in the 2000s and later. I also remembered my own ‘struggle:’ sitting on the sofa, practising for (non-existent) auditions, teaching for three days a week and, above all, feeling like a complete failure. Was it possible that everyone felt like this? I wanted to find out more. One of the key findings from my work was that music graduates had a strong sense of who they were as a player, but were less aware of their competencies and interests outside of music. Many had very fixed aspirations for their future career, and any deviation from that was automatically marked out as failure. As the graduates in my study went on to build their careers, they got to know themselves better and began to create career paths that reflected who they were within and outside of music. They also redefined failure and success to create fulfilling and sustainable futures.

The journey to a career in music often begins with ‘what now?’ However, try the following ten questions as an alternative. Some are easier than others, but you’re used to a challenge by now, so let’s dive in!

  1. Do I need a non-musical job? I wouldn’t usually open with this one, but you’d be disappointed if I didn’t mention the pandemic*… There’s a sneaky idea that taking a job outside of music somehow counts as failure. This is untrue at the best of times, but currently, the complete shutdown of our industry means it might be wise to take an opportunity to earn some money elsewhere. Pandemic or no pandemic, a steady income stream is a really great idea. You can pay your bills, which means that you can practise with a clear mind. You might be able to save money to put towards a new exciting project that needs a cash injection. You might even be able to afford to turn down the odd gig to make other plans. Many musicians I researched also mentioned that a job away from music was a welcome escape and a source of routine and social contact, so the benefits could be more than financial. *Revisiting this in 2023, replace 'pandemic' and 'industry shutdown' with 'cost-of-living crisis' and the point still rings true...

  1. What are my boundaries? When you first graduate, it’s tempting to say yes to everything you’re offered. Starting out, this is likely to feel like a good strategy, but there will eventually come a point where you might start to burn out. It’s been observed that freelance workers, especially musicians, are in danger of self-exploitation as a result of taking on too much, the results of which can range from tiredness all the way to significant mental health difficulties. It may seem obvious, but having a clear set of rules for yourself such as how far you’re willing to travel or the least amount of pay you would accept can help keep this in check. And of course, there are always exceptions to every rule, but you can make those the exceptions rather than the norm.

  1. What music can I do for me? At college you will have spent a lot of time playing music for a specific reason, like an assessment. You might even have been given a syllabus that you had to play from. Put down the orchestral excerpt list, at least for a couple of days a week! Leaving college is a great time to explore music for music’s sake, either by exploring new repertoire or by building new skills. Those things might make you more employable in the future, but, more importantly, having musical goals for yourself will keep you more motivated and help you to explore other parts of your musicianship. Some graduates I spoke to found that ‘the grind’ had taken some of the fun out of music, but ultimately found that new musical interests – like composition, songwriting, commissioning new work and even musical comedy - kept their love for music alive.

  1. What not-music can I do for me? The established musicians I spoke to emphasised the importance of their non-musical interests as an escape from the pressures of music. Those who didn’t have non-musical interests either wished they did or were actively trying to find them! In addition to offering a break from music, non-musical interests can help you explore who you are without your craft, which is really beneficial to your future career. You might learn more about yourself through your hobbies. For example, by managing a sports team, one graduate felt more positive about their future ambition to become an artist manager.

  1. Do I really need any more lessons? This is a decision for you to make, not your teacher. The idea of going into the music profession with no further guidance can be quite daunting. You’re also likely to have formed a strong relationship with your teacher during your degree. However, it has been observed that leaning too much on a teacher’s input can make students and early career musicians feel less empowered to make decisions of their own. Therefore, it might be freeing – at least for a while – to do some playing for yourself and cast your own critical ear over it without a teacher’s judgement. If you decide to go back for some lessons in the future, you might have more of an idea of what you’d like to work on or improve, rather than waiting for someone else to tell you what to do.

  1. What - and how much - do I want to put online? The pressure to create a flashy online presence is greater than ever before. Many musicians I interviewed acknowledged that self-promotion was important but felt uncomfortable being too ‘out there.’ Other musicians have found that excessively focusing on ‘the hustle’ left them feeling exhausted and disheartened. My advice would be to avoid jumping straight in without an idea of what your overall brand is: it’s better to publish a small amount of quality content than sacrificing quality – and your sanity – to post something every day. For more practical advice about self-promotion, head for David Taylor’s website, where he shares tips and tricks for building an online presence.

  1. Who are my social supports? One of the reasons why graduation is a challenging time is because relationships and routines change. A key part of your experience in music college will have been the friends you made and the people you met, but graduation and social distancing is likely to have impacted your social scene massively. This can contribute to feelings of isolation and uncertainty, so make sure you are staying in touch with people and reaching out to those you haven’t heard from in a while. I remember feeling like nobody understood how hard my first year out of college was, but in reality, we all felt like that and never talked about it. Put simply, look after each other!

The big questions:

  1. What are my wider life(style) goals? I know what you’re thinking now: ‘Hold up, Kate, as if I know what my life goals are, I’ve been focusing really hard on my music and I’m only young.’ You’re right, and nobody is expecting you to have any of that worked out just yet, so start by exploring your lifestyle goals instead, as they can often lead you to a better sense of what your ideal career might look like. For example, one musician I interviewed really wanted to have a dog but knew that his present lifestyle would be incompatible. As a result, he was building a wedding band agency that might enable him to work from home and pick his gigs rather than travelling all over the country to work. When I began to envisage my ideal career I realised that being at the same place of work every day might leave me uninspired. I therefore decided that I probably wouldn’t like a full-time seat in an orchestra. It’s busy out there and as a music graduate you have a lot of choices, but thinking about how your ideal life might look can help narrow it down.   

  1. What do I need to cast aside? This one is a bit Mari Kondo, but a big part of graduation from music college consists of ‘casting off’ negative attitudes that might be dragging you down. I found a lot of these, but there are two main ones that might be worth exploring now. The first is the ‘failed musician narrative:’ the idea that any job that’s not playing in the orchestra or singing at the opera counts as failure. The second is the ‘performer-teacher binary,’ where graduates can fall into the trap of thinking that it’s either one or the other, and that teaching somehow ‘cancels out’ any performing work leading to, you guessed it, failure. The Musicians’ Union found that the idea that some music jobs are more worthy than others contributes to mental health challenges for musicians of all ages, indicating that attitudes such as these can continue long after graduation. It’s difficult to suggest a solution to this, but as a starting point you might find it helpful to acknowledge when you’re feeling these negative attitudes and being mindful of their roots. 

  1. What does success mean to me? Perhaps the biggest question of all… and the most difficult to answer! Musicians spend their life asking this question, defining and redefining their success as they find more out about themselves and their relationship with music. In the end, the most important thing for all of the musicians that I worked with was that they found their own success: not their college’s, not their teachers’, not their parents’ and certainly not society’s. This happened over the course of many years, and it will for you too. If you begin by being open-minded and unafraid to challenge yourself, amazing things can happen. Only you can decide what those are! 

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