What to expect when you leave music college.

It’s getting to that time of the academic year when music students are preparing for end of year recitals. For some of those students it will mean the end of formal education and the beginning of life in the big wide world.

During my last year at college I was mainly wondering how on earth I was going to make ends meet without my trusty student loan to get me through. Where was I going to find all this work I would need in order to pay the bills – council tax, what’s that??

I think it is natural to wonder what life will be like ‘on the outside’. With music, everyone’s experience will be different, I’m writing from the point of view of a harpist so my career will be different to other instrumentalists.

The first thing to expect when leaving music college is that there will be scary times. Times when money is way tighter than is comfortable, times when you look in the diary and realise there are no gigs three months from now. There are ways to overcome this fear: working hard and having faith. I’m not going to get all religious on you here, by faith I mean confidence in the fact that the work is out there somewhere – you just have to get out there and find it (that’s where the hard work comes in).

The second thing to expect after graduating – you will at some point be asked to play for free. This is a highly contentious issue and we all have to make the decision for ourselves. Personally, I don’t play for free for anyone except family. I don’t want people in the music world to know me as someone who will work for nothing. The most important reason I don’t play for free is: I can’t afford it.

Thirdly, you need to stay on top of emails/phone calls/voicemails.


The admin side is so important if you’re going to be successful as a freelancer. I’ve lost gigs because I forgot to answer a text or an email went into my junk mail instead of my inbox. Those are lost gigs. That is money down the drain. That is someone who won’t recommend you to their friends and who definitely won’t book you again. Make a ‘Needs Action’ folder for emails that need action and work your way through it meticulously.

Speaking of being meticulous – you need to watch your income and expenditure carefully.


Being a freelancer means you can earn vastly different amounts each month so it’s vital to know if you need to watch your spending during a rough patch. Try to squirrel away money when you can – for emergencies. A perk of keeping note of income and expenses is it takes no time at all to complete your tax return (go to an accountant) – I’ve already done mine for 13-14 and it took 15 minutes – Boom!

When I left college I found that I really missed my weekly lesson with my teacher.


I missed the little weekly targets and challenges. Once you graduate it’s easy to get into the rhythm of just practicing for the gigs you have coming up. One way to overcome this is to make sure you stay inspired – go to festivals, have lessons if you want to, go to lots of concerts, listen to solo repertoire and challenge yourself to keep adding to your own rep.

You may be about to leave formal education, but in those first few years out of college you will learn so much it’s unbelievable. I graduated three years ago and I still feel like I learn something new every day. I learn about what works and what doesn’t work in terms of organising myself and my working hours. I learn about how to work with different people and different personalities. I learn how to stand up for myself and say ‘no’ to gigs that don’t pay a reasonable fee, in good faith that I will find something better. My dad always says ‘you don’t learn to drive until after you’ve passed your test’. I think the same is true for freelancing. You have to make the jump and trust that you are capable of supporting yourself, you’ll learn the particulars along the way.

This way of life is so inspiring, you really are the master of your own destiny. Thing is, no one is going to gift-wrap a career and hand it to you on a plate, you have to get out there and find it for yourself. It’s daunting, but exciting.

A closing thought; remember that quote from American Beauty?

In order to be successful, one must project an image of success.

When it comes to social media, it’s all about projecting the image you want people to see. I’m talking about band/musician pages here – not our personal pages. Make your twitter page interesting, talk to people, build relationships with others in the same boat as you. Get really good photos taken and use them.

I’m not just talking about our online presence though. I mean in real life too. Do you show up to rehearsals late/scruffily turned out/hungover? Is that making the best impression? It sounds awful but sometimes it’s not just about the music. If you are rude to a fixer or you don’t get back to them, they won’t call you again and you’ll be off the list. If you get back to them promptly and are friendly and helpful on the phone – even if you are unable to do the gig they will probably call again. You need to be showing the best of yourself as much as you humanly can. Look your best, stay healthy, be friendly and polite and doors will open for you.

So there you have it, thoughts on leaving music college. Music graduates – do you have anything to add? Leave a comment below.

Finally I want to wish all the RNCM Harpists the best of luck with your upcoming recitals! I can’t wait to come and hear you (and celebrate with you afterwards).


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