5 skills for a music student to learn before graduation

The top 5 non-music skills classical musician must have for achieving success in life and music


3/23/20248 min read

two person standing on gray tile paving
two person standing on gray tile paving

When I ask fellow musicians about their career satisfaction, a common theme emerges: despite their deep love for music, the life of a professional classical musician is a challenging journey. Many find themselves letting go of hope for improvement over time, and some even question their decision to pursue their passion.

But why do once-passionate musicians lose their spark or stop striving for their dreams? I believe that the answer lies in our unpreparedness for the specific challenges that accompany this artistic pursuit. The good news is that preparing ourselves for these struggles is not only possible but would position us better to benefit from the challenges and struggles that will certainly come our way. However, it requires choosing a different path than most musicians by investing time and effort in developing additional skills outside the realm of music. These skills can be acquired at any age but for maximising their compounding effect it is preferable to start developing them in our late teens, early twenties. The challenge comes from the fact that during these years musicians are extremely focused on improving their musicianship and instrumental skills.

After navigating the highs and lows of my career as a flautist, grappling with severe illnesses, relocating to different countries on three different continents, and facing the devastating financial impact of COVID-19 on our industry, I devoted the last three and a half years to evaluate myself, the skills I had, and recognising and developing the skills I needed to prevent myself ever again falling into the cliché of the “struggling musician.”

I learned that the following essential skills helps in advancing our musical journey and pave the way for artistic success, financial freedom, and a fulfilling career.

Skill 1. Know Thyself

Most of us believe we know ourselves well despite avoiding the time for self-reflection and clarifying what we stand for, including what are our values, gifts, and blind-spots. As humans, we often shape our identities primarily under the influence of external factors such as parental expectations and societal norms, only to find ourselves questioning our paths and choices much later in life, typically during what is commonly referred to as the mid-life crisis. Stephen R. Covey, in his book ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’ (1989), wisely advises us to “Begin with the end in mind.” Knowing who we want to be, understanding our values, and envisioning the qualities and skills we desire, are the corner stones of creating the compass of our lives. This clarity doesn’t eliminate challenges but empowers us to make choices aligned with our distinguished aspirations and will tremendously increase our chances of creating the life best suited for us.

How to start:

  1. Write down what you would like to have in your life. Dream big!

  2. List the kind of a person who has these things in its life. What qualities this person has?

  3. Break it down to how that person behave daily to bring these things about.

  4. Break these daily habits into the basic actions you can start taking today toward building your daily habits and skills.

Once we have identified what we stand for and who we wish to become, it’s time to assess what internal and external changes are necessary to achieve these aspirations.

Skill 2. The Power of Habits

Behavioural change is the key to altering our life’s outcomes, as our habits not only shape our identity, they are our identity. James Clear’s well-acclaimed book ‘Atomic Habits’ serves as a valuable resource to understand the art of habit-formation, providing a roadmap to transforming ourselves by creating small changes that embody our future selves. Two important concepts from his book have resonated with me as a person, musician and a flute player; Understanding the compounding effect of tiny daily improvements and developing a healthy approach to building consistency.

How to start:

  1. Strive for a 1% improvement every day. Even when an action seams to be small and maybe insignificant. A 1% daily improvement would mean an outstanding compounding improvement of over 37 times yearly (3778%)!

  2. To be consistent means we must also be adaptable. Sustaining the newly created habit is much more important than if we can perform it the same or better at any given day. We must keep showing up, focus on the now and have the belief that we will achieve our goal over time by sticking to our habits.

Skill 3. Finance Literacy

Financial literacy is not solely about math; quite far from it; it involves psychology, history, and comprehension of terms such as money, currency, good debt, bad debt, investment, interest, and personal budgeting. Jim Rohn’s advice, “Set a goal to become a millionaire for what it will make of you to achieve it,” underscores the transformative power of perusing financial success on our mindset and skills. By understanding the basics of finance and its vocabulary, we open ourselves to better manage our finances. As we are more equipped to talk about money we become more comfortable to handle it and will learn how to grow it. Furthermore, by avoiding thinking of ourselves as a business that needs a good financial management and plan, we are ending up constantly chasing more work and never being able to fully rest and recharge. Being financially savvy also will prepare you for life’s uncertainties and over time will allow you to have more control over what you play, when, where and with whom. In becoming financial literate, you will experience a feeling of empowerment and the knowledge that you are the master of your financial fate and life.

How to start:

  1. Understand the meanings of the following words:

  • what is money

  • Money vs Currency

  • Inflation

  • Interest

  • Good debt, bad debt

  • Assets

  • Taxable and non-taxable yields

  • What are stocks

  • How stock options work, such as calls and puts

  • Why insurance exists

  • Global currency

  • Calculating return on investment

  • How a mutual fund works

  1. Learn about finance from books, podcast and YouTube channels. Find the best teacher for you and your circumstances.

  2. Pay yourself first. Waiting to put money aside for when you’ll have more is a mistake. Just like anything else in life, saving is a skills. It’s a habit we must develop as the basics of any financial endeavour and freedom. Same as with practicing our instruments, having the ability to think long term and not indulge ourselves in the moment is the key to our success.

  3. List and remind yourself regularly why financial literacy is so important to you and your personal goals. Make the shift from a consumer mindset (spending money on things that will immediately will loose of their value) to a creator mindset (allowing your money to grow by creating a system that let it to grow Independently from your time).

  4. Each time you are considering to buy something remember that time is the only resource we will eventually run out of and then ask yourself:

  • Would this thing that I’m about to buy is worth the hours I’ve spent in earning the money

  • Would this purchase help me to build the future I want and will it allow me having more time for the important things in life?

Skill 4. Communication Skills

Regardless of your musical goals, playing music is predominantly a collaborative effort. Effective communication increases our chances of passing orchestral probation, securing future collaborations, and expanding our network. Developing good communication skills, much like mastering an instrument, requires knowledge, practice, and time. A good place to start is by being genuinely curious when meeting new people, actively listening to them, and showing acknowledgment and understanding. Being present with others and focusing on them will give them one of the best gifts they will have ever received—the feeling of being listened to and understood. This simple practice fosters deeper connections and opens doors to new opportunities. Many books were written about this subject. “How to Win Friends and Influence People” (1936) by Dale Carnegie is considered the bible of communication, and many expert communicators use this book as guidance even today.

How to start:

  1. Begin with a genuine smile, one that radiates warmth through your eyes. Imagine the person in front of you is a good friend you haven’t seen for a long time. This simple gesture not only uplifts your mood but also brightens the recipient’s day, fostering positive vibes that pave the way for meaningful communication.

  2. Hone the art of listening attentively, prioritising understanding over speaking in conversations. By actively engaging in this practice, you demonstrate respect and empathy towards others’ perspectives and will nurture deeper connections.

  3. Cultivate mindfulness during conversations by acknowledging the urge to formulate a response while listening to the other person. Recognising the subtle tension within your body that signals this inclination is the initial step toward releasing it. By staying present in the moment, you foster an open mind and genuine receptivity, enabling you to fully absorb and learn from others’ perspectives.

  4. Review weekly your communication exchanges, celebrating successes and identifying areas for improvement. This self-assessment empowers growth, enabling you to refine your communication skills with each interaction.

  5. Assume full accountability for your communication outcomes. While we cannot dictate others’ reactions, mastering effective communication techniques enhances the likelihood of favourable results for both parties involved, fostering harmonious relationships and mutual understanding.

Skill 5. Optimising Our Health

The past four years have hopefully emphasised the importance of personal health and why we should rely on ourselves when it comes to our individual well-being. We all intuitively know that being mentally and metabolically healthy enhances our productivity, happiness, and success as well as our ability to contribute to others. Bombarded by conflicting health advice, curiosity, open-mindedness, and testing our assumptions, aid in making better choices. Dealing with severe health issues, my personal breakthrough came when I started to recognise that no matter how far we got since climbing down from the trees, humans are still animals who haven’t fully adapted to modern life as evolutionary processes take more than twenty, fifty, one-hundred or even ten-thousand years. Prioritising food’s role as nutrition rather as recreation, limiting screen time before bed, and spending time in nature are crucial for our health and well-being and are a quick way to improve both our mental and physical health.

How to start:

  1. Prioritise Proper Nutrition by shifting your focus from viewing food mostly as recreation to prioritising nutrition that supports mental and metabolic health.

  2. Establish a bedtime routine that includes minimising screen time before sleep. This allows for better sleep quality by reducing exposure to blue light, which can disrupt the body’s natural sleep-wake cycle, as well as visual and mental stimulation, ultimately enhancing overall well-being.

  3. Incorporate regular outdoor activities into daily routines to reconnect with nature. Whether it’s taking walks in green spaces, hiking, or simply enjoying time outdoors, immersing oneself in nature can have profound benefits for mental and physical health, reducing stress levels and promoting relaxation.

  4. Foster a sense of curiosity about health-related topics by seeking out reliable information and staying open-minded to different perspectives. Engaging in ongoing learning and critical thinking helps navigate the abundance of conflicting health advice, enabling informed decision-making for better health outcomes.

  5. Challenge your assumptions about health and well-being by experimenting with different lifestyle choices and habits to determine what works best for your individual needs. This might involve trying new dietary approaches, exercise routines, or stress-management techniques, allowing for personal discovery and optimisation of health practices.

In conclusion, being trained as classical musicians sets us apart from most people. Without notice, we have developed essential skills for success both in our careers and personal lives. Recognising the habits we have already built as musicians and using them to develop additional skills in different areas, will put us on the fast track for better health, financial independence, and healthy relationships. Skills such as constant search for daily improvement, time management, active listening, self-reflection and evaluation, long-term goal-setting, and performing under pressure are just a few of the benefits that music education, and specifically learning how to excel in playing a musical instrument, has given us.

During our student years, we have the time, energy, and resources to learn, experiment, and understand ourselves better before shouldering the responsibilities of adulthood. However, even years after graduation, it is never too late to change, adapt, and improve our future. Keeping in mind where we would like to be in one, five, and ten years from now is a great tool to remind ourselves what we will be missing out on if we won’t take action now. Just as you would prepare yourself the best you can for auditions and recitals, choose to prepare yourself for a flourishing life and career as a musician by developing these 5 skills.