Musical Left Behind Syndrome

We’re wading into musician issue territory today by way of an article in the 11/8/21 edition of The Strad by violinist Daniel Kurganov about making it as a professional violinist who started at the age of 16 when many begin a decade or more earlier.

I am very lucky to have parents who, while not being professional musicians themselves, trusted my passion through its twists and turns. But for many years, I wished I had started violin sooner, imagining how much ‘bigger’ my career might have been.

Now, though, I am grateful to have come to the instrument at an age when I could think for myself. I remember how I learned things, what worked and what didn’t, and all of my experimentation.

For those on the outside looking in, this is one of those odd unspoken assumptions in classical music that dictates you can’t make it as a musician if you didn’t begin private studies in the single digit age group.

Saying you didn’t begin until 16 is the sort of thing that can be meet with gasps followed by comments that you must have some extraordinary talent. In other words, it’s looked at as an impediment to overcome.

Personally, I’ve never quite figured out why this is the case other than it being a byproduct of a highly competitive career track. Throw in a healthy dose of prodigy syndrome and you end up with what feels like weaponized FOMO that’s probably doing a lot more harm than good.

If you don’t start “x” by “age “y” you’ll never make it.

I’m glad to see Kurganov’s article and would be more than a little curious to see how many existing orchestra musicians started learning their instrument after age 12. If anyone has access to a study with this information, please take a moment to post the resource in a comment or a direct message.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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