Sustaining Yourself as a Musician Whilst Working in Music Education

I’m 50 next year, officially middle-aged! Definitely a time for reflection on so many levels. In fact, I can hardly think of a more powerful enabler of growth and change than reflection. It has been a central component in my development as a musician and educator over these past 30 years. I guess in many ways I’m a hybrid or perhaps even a bit of a maverick.

I’ve had the security of the full-time pensionable job on three separate occasions, two in performance and one in education. I was a full-time musician in the Army from age 15 to 20, then I succeeded in gaining a clarinet position with the National Symphony Orchestra at age 25 which I did for 12 years and finally I had a full-time lecturing position at Dundalk Institute of Technology for a number of years.

And yet I have continued to eschew this security. Why? Well security is not all it’s cracked up to be (in my experience) if you want to sustain and develop your creativity. Unfortunately working in organizations can often end up having a negative effect on ones own personal creativity. Often the administrative demands are onerous or procedures for individual creative development are highly proscribed by the nature of the organizational structure itself.

For me in order to sustain and develop my creativity I have found it necessary to continually question what it is that I do and why I do it. The answers are not always forthcoming, but, as with all good research the answer is not primary. It is the questioning (questing) that focuses awareness and ultimately can result in pragmatic decision-making. Through this process I have come to believe that for many creative people (educators/musicians) a portfolio career is the best compromise, as it provides sufficient autonomy to motivate and promote continuous career and creative development.

The motivation inherent in a portfolio career seems to blend effectively the intrinsic desire to be creative with the extrinsic pragmatic realisation that one has to pay the bills. So for instance I might find myself: teaching clarinet in the RIAM, performing a new work such as Tom Johnson’s Bedtime stories as Gaeilge for Clarinet and Narrator, providing CPD workshops for other musicians working in education and community settings with Music Network, performing with Opera Theatre Company, or work-shopping new compositions with student composers, and still have space in my head and my life to say yes to new projects as they arise (and they do).

In choosing this way of working one does sacrifice security (and income) in favour of personal creative growth. I have to be honest and acknowledge this is not a practical reality for many people and I have been facilitated in my creative journey by the unstinting support of my wife who spent almost 30 years teaching music as a second-level subject.

Whilst employment security (especially in the current climate) is a necessity for many, it is important to also try to find ways to tap into our inner creative needs. This could be simply by attending a local music group weekly, finding space to be involved with a project, or even taking the time to go to an art gallery.

However, I do believe many people in education and performance (who do have some flexibility around decision making) can be tempted to choose security over personal development (even if by default) and often find themselves creatively burnt-out. I am a firm believer in the saying… Leap and the net will appear.

* This article first appeared in on the Irish Music Education Website in May 2011:

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