Pause that Existential Crisis: Undergrad is Just the Beginning

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By Stella Joseph-Jarecki (Enquiries:

If I was to give one piece of advice to aspiring arts professionals still immersed in their music degree, it would be this: care less.

Work hard and apply yourself, of course, but constantly remind yourself that it is a university degree, not your life. It is a chunk of tertiary education, consisting of a bunch of units that will be varying levels of interesting and instructive. But it is not your life.

There is little logic in expecting your university degree to supply your life with its central meaning and purpose. It probably won’t. But it may start the chain of events which will help you start to work out what that is (and change your mind several times, which is totally cool too).

University degrees are more than the sum of their parts. The overall experience of committing to something intensively for three or four years will probably teach you something. The people you come into contact with may change the course of your life. I talk shit about my degree pretty often, but I really don’t know who I would be or what I would be doing today if it wasn’t for my study experience. It set in motion a line of dominoes, each one triggered by trying something new. And all of it began in March 2014 when I showed up at Melbourne Conservatorium of Music as a baby voice major.

So as contradictory as it sounds, that’s why I think university degrees are never a ‘waste of time’, but that you shouldn’t rest all your hopes and dreams on to them either.

Bachelor of Music degrees are strange beasts. Unlike many others (law degrees, medical degrees, accounting degrees) they do not, and cannot, prepare you for a specific job or niche in the industry. After thinking it over, I don’t think one ever could, no matter how many times it was restructured.

Almost all begin as performance degrees, from which there are composition or musicology streams available to move into. The basic breakdown of musical careers you may want to head into is: soloist, orchestral or chamber musician, composer, music academic, and music teacher (classroom or instrumental).

I’ve refrained from mentioning a notable one: music therapist. Music therapy is an emerging field in the crosshairs of medicine, psychology, rehabilitation and music. It’s rapidly gaining respect as a discipline and as such, to be appointed a resident music therapist in a hospital or health facility would require a minimum of a Masters degree. So let’s set that aside as an incredible career choice that is usually not discussed in detail during an undergraduate degree.

But you take your average nineteen-year-old at an Australian Conservatorium, and those are the options bouncing around their head. When I attended MCM there was a yearly intake of about a hundred musicians; in my cohort there were roughly twenty singers, twenty pianists, and fifty assorted instrumentalists.

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I found it invigorating to suddenly be surrounded by a crowd of people my age who were just as passionate and driven about music performance as I was. There was no need to ever filter out obsessive rants about composers or musicals or symphonies; everyone got it.

Conservatoriums are filled with perfectionists, the hard workers who grew up being the ‘musical one’, the ‘creative one’, the ‘talented one’. Getting accepted into an institution which only takes a small percentage of auditionees is an impressive feat which shouldn’t be understated.

So it’s only natural that students throw themselves into their training. You lock yourself in a practice room and let your degree surround you with comforting layers of bubble wrap: friends, mentors, a social scene, assignments to churn out. You delay thinking about the future because you zero in on memorising your recital repertoire or drilling your exercises.

But the ironic thing about this ultra-laser-focused approach is that after a fourteen week semester, your only performing experience will be thirty minutes of art song, sung straight through one afternoon. And then it will be over.

While you had your blinkers on, you were missing out on opportunities to try new things. Whether you want to become a performer, a teacher, a composer, or a writer, the absolute best thing you can do for yourself is try new things and gain experience. There is no downside- you build a variety of skills, move away from the dangerous slippery slope of funneling all your self worth into how well you do in your performance exam, and start to understand what you might want to spend your time after university doing.

To the singers reading this: you have the rest of your life to learn a Rachmaninov song cycle and work your way through hundreds of Mozart arias. Your twenties is an excellent time to break out of your comfort zone, fail, take a sharp left, double-back, rotate in a circle, rinse and repeat.

The arts industry is an incredibly fragmented place. To find work you have to diversify and adapt, and get used to being in the workforce (an entirely different dynamic from being a student in a tutorial).

This is starkly true in my experience. I managed to get a full time arts admin position after doing some casual admin work for an arts organisation, which lead to further ongoing shifts assisting a particular person who was overloaded, which led to another organisation asking me to cover their admin assistant which she was on holiday- all of which meant I could list two fabulous referees on my resume after an instructive six months of sporadic work. None of which I could have planned in advance, particularly because I had no prior desire to try arts admin in the first place. But I tried it, and I liked it! And even the most basic admin position has the fantastic upside of teaching you about how things practically get done from the inside of an organisation.

If you experience success, it may not look like what you’re expecting. You’ll have to be your own agent, manager, promoter, and life coach while your career is in its infancy. Being commissioned to write new music, being cast in shows, those are fantastic victories but you are still likely to need a ‘day job’ while you juggle freelancing- and that is by no means ‘giving up’.

An undergraduate degree is the definition of a first step. I can almost guarantee that after a year, you will barely remember the recitals which caused you so much stress. So if you’re scared at the thought of your degree ending, don’t be. It’s where the real (messy) fun begins.

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