“How old were you when you started playing the piano?”
It’s usually one of the first questions people ask me when they find out I’m a pianist, and I immediately want to respond with something like “As soon as I could sit on a piano bench!” because this is when most musicians start, and I have worked pretty hard to consider myself a musician.
It always takes a bit of internal struggle to tell the truth and say that my beginning was unorthodox – I started at the late age of thirteen and taught myself for about a year before finding a teacher. At this point, I start to worry that the person asking the question has mentally removed me from the category of “real musician” and placed me squarely in the category of “flaming imposter”. Even when other facts become apparent – that I hold both a Bachelor’s and an Honours degree in piano performance, that I perform in solo and chamber concerts, that I’m paid to accompany choirs, that I spend most of my week teaching people how to play the piano, and that all my income comes from my musical work, I still worry that because of my late start, I’m not a “real musician”.
Without the authority of an early start, what is my passport to being a “real musician”? I didn’t have some kind of movie-magic moment when I knew that this was my destiny. No famous pianist heard me play and pronounced that I had incredible talent.
Certainly I do have the most obvious prerequisite: a deep love for music, and I even have the not-insignificant bonus of experiencing a lot of joy in the process of making music. But while “love” and “joy” sound like excellent answers for the question of “What makes me a real musician?”, they’re not enough, and the real answer is actually pretty mundane.
It’s simply that I kept choosing this life – the life of a “real musician” – over and over. I chose it when I had much more sensible and attractive university options than piano performance (particularly seeing as I only just passed Trinity Grade 6 Piano at that point and the minimum requirement for an audition was Grade 8). I chose it when it meant moving to another city to find the country’s best music program, which came with increased expenses and debt, and literally banking said expenses and debt on the slim possibility of passing the audition for performance piano. I chose it when it meant I spent my first year of university taking musicology papers and preparing for the audition when my peers spent their first year of their piano performance degrees performing. I chose it when it meant practicing at university until 2AM because I couldn’t use the practice rooms during the day (they were full of actual performance students during daylight hours), then getting up and going to class the next morning.
After the successful audition, I kept choosing this path, even when it meant that I was the worst pianist in piano class, when I had memory slips in front of teachers and audiences, when I had panic attacks before lessons, when I waited to perform backstage in fits of nasuea, and when the various pressures of study and performance led me to doubt myself constantly. I kept choosing it then, and I’m continuing to choose it now.
Today, of course, I’m a much better (and happier!) pianist than when I started, and my current musical life certainly isn’t as difficult and fraught as the university experience I’ve described. I even have musical skills that people are willing to pay for, which by definition makes me a professional musician. But quite aside from what other people think, or what value they’re willing to assign to me or my music making, I do feel that I’m a real musician, simply because I’ve chosen to be. Continuing to make that choice is a huge privilege, and hopefully one that I’ll get to continue making for the rest of my life.
If you’d like to join me as I navigate life as a self-employed classical musician, which does sound on paper like the World’s Least Viable and Most Terrible Career Choice, but much to my surprise, is actually a Quite Viable and Supremely Fulfilling Career Choice, I’d be absolutely thrilled. We’ll chat about incredible repertoire, performance anxiety, fantastic books about music and life, the ups and downs of teaching, recovering from injury, being self-employed and having to act like an actual adult on a regular basis, and a whole lot more.