I get the question often. Should parents encourage their kids to pursue a career in an activity they love such as music, dance, theater, or art? There are no easy answers and certainly different answers for different children. However, let me share with you how our family processed this question.
My daughter is a violinist who, at a very early age, fell in love with her instrument. We never had squeaky renditions of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, but accurate interpretations that moved quickly to advanced pieces. By the age of 12, she was practicing 4-5 hours a day just because she wanted to. Her teacher began mentioning conservatories. We let her life play on along that track of preparation and study, but Natalie also started a parallel track of questioning that choice.
In middle school, we were at a private home where a pianist was playing beautiful music. You could tell she loved her instrument. Upon inquiry, however, we learned that she was an attorney by training and profession. She told Natalie that, after much thought, she decided years ago to keep her music for love, something that she could just delight in and not have to make a living with.
Then, Natalie started reading a blog of a famous female violinist. She thought that it sounded exciting to travel the world and make music. What she found was descriptions of hotel rooms turned into practice rooms, the exotic destination always outside the window and never experienced.
A few years later, Natalie had a teacher who was conservatory-trained but having a hard time making a living despite the fact that she played in a professional orchestra and had a private studio. One night after a particularly grueling week, she confided to my daughter, “I play in the orchestra with people who are businessmen and women by day and make music by night. You are smart enough to do that.”
After much soul-searching, my daughter realized that if she had to spend 6-8 hours daily practicing, sitting for juries, etc. she would no longer love to play. She watched her older violin friends struggle in conservatory and struggle to find jobs once they left. She realized that she wasn’t even winning the music competitions in our state, much less on a national level. She knew it would be difficult to financially support herself as a musician or to pay off school loans. When she finally reached the decision to keep her music for love, her violin teacher supported her. He said, “You will have a better life this way. You can have a career in another field and then play chamber music with your friends after dinner.” It reminded me of the richness of Thomas Jefferson’s life.
This decision was a personal one. We need gifted musicians and compelling artists to make our world a better place. Some of those will be trained in their discipline, others will be pursuing their art in their free time for love. There isn’t a right answer, but it is a question that deserves a great deal of thought.
To help you think through how to advise our child, I highly recommend the book So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love By Cal Newport.
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