7 skills all music graduates should possess


The music industry of today and tomorrow looks very different to past models. Musicians are learning to adapt, because developing a portfolio career and harnessing a diverse range of skills is proving vital to ensuring longevity and sustainability in the music industry.

(Not to mention, diversifying and developing expertise in multiple areas can be immensely satisfying.)

But as musicians, how do we do that? What sorts of skills are going to future-proof a career in music? Where does the music student or graduate even begin?

We’ve compiled a list, in collaboration with musician Tim White, of the top skills all music graduates need to have in their toolkit. Tim (pictured below) is the coordinator of Classical Performance at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts. He’s also been awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia for his service to music and education, and a Fulbright Scholarship too.

1. Performance psychology

We are taught from a pretty young age the importance of practice and honing your technical skills. However, we are given less direction when it comes to mental skills and mastering the psychological challenges of being a performing musician. Luckily, the taboo on artists’ mental health is gradually being lifted.

“When I was studying, no one talked about it,” Tim recalls. “I thought I was the only person who had a nightmare in my head every time I went out on stage; this chorus of critical voices that shadowed every move and criticised it.

“When I asked my teacher about it, they said to ‘just relax’.”

This is all changing. At WAAPA, classes will begin to help students understand the performance anxiety experience and learn strategies to minimise its adverse effects.

“It’s a boom area in classical music. For two-thirds of our first years, it’s the biggest obstacle they face on the stage; much more than technical or musical hurdles.

“It’s a massive issue. But there are proven strategies for pushing the anxiety to the sidelines so you can focus on the task at hand.”

2. Collaboration

When we think about music students, it’s easy to imagine a pianist or a violinist slaving away in a solitary practice room. But this isn’t an accurate reflection of how their musical career will most likely pan out. Students need to graduate with the ability to work with others and realise collaborative creative projects.

“We know that students love doing it, and we know that it leads to a lot of employment opportunities out in the big world,” Tim says. “In the modern world, audiences love collaboration.”

As Tim points out, collaboration can be immensely creatively satisfying as “there is a lot of room for imagination”.

Try it out! Write down the name of your dream collaboration partner. Which music industry skills could each of you bring to the table?

3. Home recording

If ever there was a time that proved the necessity of home recording skills, it’s COVID. When the pandemic took away our concert halls, gigs, and access to music studios, we fought back with increasingly accessible home recording equipment to continue to apply for courses, enter competitions, and share our music.

Even beyond the obvious benefit of getting your music out there, home recording can be incorporated into practice through self-reviews, which in my experience as a violinist can be really enlightening. Learning about some basic music technology can also be the instigator for a wide range of new creative possibilities.

It’s quite an exciting time to be living in. As Tim points out, people can now “create an international career from your bedroom through home recording”.

4. Broadening your genre

Genre elitism is prevalent amongst classical musicians, but even for those keen to try to break the mould, it can feel hard to know where to start. It seems more and more performances are refusing to identify with a singular genre, so it’s vital that musicians can adapt their practice to suit a post-genre future.

When it comes to early career musicians crossing genre barriers, Tim has found “they are already doing it, in my experience”.

“I’m convinced increasingly in a place like [WAAPA], where you are surrounded by actors and dancers and jazz musicians and contemporary musicians and people creating all sorts of stuff, some of that narrow-mindedness lifts away.

“It also takes away some of the fear that classical musicians have about performing.

“When we are surrounded by creativity, we can’t help but be infected by it. It brings a kind of spontaneity and joy to music-making instead of a sense of defensiveness.”

Try it out! What’s your favourite genre? Now, ask yourself how often you venture into different territories – as a musician and listener.

5. Music business

It can feel like time taken away from making music, but getting a good understanding of music business can be the difference between financial success or having to move away from industry. It’s for this reason that music business makes our list of essential graduate skills.

Tim recites an enormous list of the kinds of skills WAAPA incorporates into its new degree — all of which a musician will encounter in their career upon graduation. These include:

  • Grant writing
  • Tour planning
  • Budgeting
  • Venues
  • Contracting
  • Tax
  • Superannuation
  • Copyright
  • Band partnerships
  • Public liability insurance
  • Asset management
  • Publishing
  • Media and publicity
  • Networking
  • Audience identification
  • Audience development
  • Pitching ideas
  • Creating events
  • Creating a brand

(Just to name a few.)

I’m pretty blown away at the sheer volume of skills there are to learn. There is so much more that goes into delivering the product (music) than we realise as undergraduate students.

Try it out! How confident do you feel in these areas of music business? Using this list, make a note of which business skills you possess, and which you’d like to further develop.

6. Media and promotion

In an example of classic Australian tall poppy syndrome, I’ve noticed a lot of my music peers feel a sense of shame around self-promotion: it can feel vain or boastful. But we still need to get our music out there. And as we realise how important promotion is, the shame will lift.

The good news is that self-promotion has never been easier.

“In my day, if you wanted to publicise a concert, you would print posters and stick them up in cafes, or take out newspaper ads. It was phenomenally expensive stuff,” Tim says.

“In this day and age, you can achieve far more audience reach through using social media, but it takes skill and understanding.

“We are teaching students how to create their own brand and pitch it to the world, how to set up a professional website, what to put on it, how to write bios…but also how to make use of traditional media without sustaining costs.”

Students can take these promotion skills to go and develop international careers. Tim highlights the example of WAAPA alumni Catherine Betts and Joshua Webster, who – through savvy social media use – launched the enormously successful Kaboom Percussion, which has now franchised itself across the country as a team of dynamic music makers and educators.

7. Originality

The flipside of social media promotion is that we are exposed to a lot of musicians from every corner of the globe, and it can feel like there is no niche left to fill.

In order to stand out amongst the crowd, students need to graduate with the slightly intangible skill of originality.

“When you look at a university course outline, they are full of detail about unit learning outcomes. But I think do think there’s a range of meta-skills that need to come out of a music course, which aren’t necessarily explicitly mentioned,” Tim notes.

“Confidence, initiative, imagination, adaptability, teamwork, resilience. There’s no unit called any of those things, but they’ve got to come out of the degree and originality is a similar skill.”

While it may not be ‘taught’ in the traditional manner, Tim believes educators like himself can help to foster originality.

“You encourage it, you feed it with ideas and experiences; you give it opportunity to come to fruition, and out it comes.”

Try it out! Write down your own definition of originality. How will you make it your own?

Some parting words for music students and graduates

In many ways, the past 18 months of COVID have given us musicians the push we needed to leap more fully into the 21st Century.

Speaking of Perth’s original lockdown, Tim says “it triggered this shower of creativity of composer-performers making music themselves, recording it at home, putting it on the net”.

“Then when they get an enquiry within a day from someone wanting to buy the music, they realise they can sell it.”

By learning to adapt to change, educational institutions and graduates alike can ensure the next generation moves forward with the tools they need to create a career in the industry.

Tim reckons that “dinosaurs like me are slow to react to changing circumstances. But the circumstances have changed, and so we are going to jump on them”.

WAAPA’s new future-focused Bachelor of Music is breaking away from the traditional conservatorium approach to ensure its students have what it takes to make it after graduation.

Learn more about the new Bachelor of Music at Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts.

Above: CutCommon writer Miranda Ilchef. We teamed up with WAAPA to bring you this story about music education. Stay tuned for more interviews from the Australian music industry!

Images supplied.