Posted by Sam Gillies
Saturday 11th January, 2014

Shortly before leaving for the AYO, I was stuck on a central question in the application form for an Australia Council grant: ‘How will you know when you are no longer in the early stages of your career?’ Easy question to ask: easy question to answer if you like to measure your career with ‘things’ (which in my experience is what grant panellists like to see). It’s easy to say ‘I have a degree’ or ‘I have a certain position, therefore I am a professional.’ However, most musicians will attest that the practice of music is a process of ongoing learning and education. Thankfully, I am in the beneficial situation of being surrounded by individuals far more knowledgeable than I, and so I went to see what some of the more established participants of the AYO thought. At what stage does a performer go from being a student to being a professional?

I found violin tutor Lachlan Bramble ordering coffee during the morning tea. After interrupting his conversation and shooing away his companions I asked his opinion of the subject at hand. In Lachlan’s mind, a professional has the intellectual curiosity to learn without supervision based upon no other stimuli than self-motivation. This sort of initiative can be seen in professionals of all kinds, Lachlan extrapolated, and I am inclined to agree – everyone I’d consider a professional (of any sort) has exhibited such characteristics. Clearly, the ability to think critically about music is important in defining the professional. Always seeking the easy way out, I inquired if intellectual curiosity could be taught. To my disappointment, Lachlan was of the opinion that although it could be encouraged, it could not be taught. Disappointing for those who crave shortcuts. ‘There must be an easier way’ I thought to myself as I spied two other learned individuals to exploit for opinions.

Chris Tingay and Nicole van Bruggen were enjoying coffee and a banana when I sidled up to them to pick their brains. That is to say, Chris was enjoying a banana while Nicole was finishing a coffee. Chris may have had a coffee earlier, but I couldn’t say – I wouldn’t want to assume ownership of the abandoned coffee cup to his left. I have always found clarinettists to be intelligent people who fit right in at dinner parties, so surely these two would have some useful insights to bring to the topic at hand. After rejecting the basis of my question outright, Chris clarified, speculating that being a student and being a professional are separated by a line in the sand, but that the distinction is constantly being blurred. Thankfully, this concept was explained with hand gestures that helped to convey this idea accurately and succinctly. Chris is also quick to point out that the concept of ‘turning’ professional, as in sport, doesn’t function in the context of music. In music, performers should expect to swing between the two extremes of student and professional, but ideally the amount dedicated to professional endeavours should increase throughout one’s career. Nicole added that this should be reflected by an accumulation of experience over time, such that given enough time and enough work one would struggle to not be seen as professional. In hand with this, one must pursue professional opportunities wherever they may be, taking the initiative to relocate if greater opportunities are present away from home. There’s that word again – initiative. Clearly this must have something to do with professionalism. I felt that, while I had not necessarily gotten to the bottom of the question, I certainly had enough material for my blog post and that I could probably quit now. But then I realised that good things come in threes and in the hope that this rule would increase the quality of my article I set out to find a third opinion.

This third opinion came in the form of Ngaire de Korte, an oboe tutor whose sunny disposition radiated forth from across the room as she was finishing a pizza. It was refreshing to discuss the topic of professionalism with regards to our nation’s most precious natural resource: money. Ngaire broke down professionalism as a function of financial value, explaining to me that although the transition from student to professional is ambiguous, the following general rule can be applied: a professional earns money, a student pays money. Ngaire was quick to point out that she didn’t necessarily agree with this view. Perhaps, she hypothesised, it is the intention to earn money that legitimises oneself as a professional, a sentiment with which I was inclined to agree. With that, I decided that some sort of conclusion must be hidden in the notes I had taken, and I took my leave.

The concept of what being a professional means still troubles me, but it’s comforting that such bothers are experienced by other musicians as well. We can deduce that the separation between student and professional is a grey area – to be a professional you must have the desire to learn and improve yourself, thus acquiring greater professional experience. Perhaps being a professional musician is the act of choosing to be a student, rather than having that choice made for you by someone else: to dedicate yourself to a life time of learning and the pursuit of a possibly unobtainable perfection. Having chosen to embark upon this learning discovery, then, I can only hope that this blog post represents another step in the long walk to professionalism we all have before us.

Words About Music participants will be blogging daily.


– Sam Gillies 

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