Career Opportunities in the Arts

by Lorin F. Wheelwright

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    A young person who “just loves music” or is “simply wild about acting” can easily mistake a hunger for applause as the presence of talent. Recently a young man came to my office and said that he was going to organize a rock band, make a hit record, and acquire fame and fortune within the next year. I asked him what success he had already achieved in other people’s bands. “None.” How expert was he on an instrument? “I’m just learning the guitar.” I advised him not to risk the savings of friends or parents on a rock-band venture but to learn basic musical skills, join someone else’s band, and when he felt that he could surpass his mentor, then embark on a solo career. As he left, I suggested that he return in a year with his bank book, and we could compare notes, receivable and payable.

    Another young man once counseled with me about becoming a concert pianist. He planned to study with a world-renowned teacher. I knew he possessed superior talent because he had brilliantly accompanied an oratorio choir that I directed. He pursued his studies and has reached the top of his profession. His name is Grant Johannesen.

    Serious artists seek recognition by performing exceedingly well. Their happiness comes from achieving worthwhile goals. A successful businessman once heard me play the piano, and he said, “I would give $25,000 if I could play like that.” He was trying to compliment me. The fact is, you cannot buy the ability to play any musical instrument with money. You buy it with constant practice and good instruction. This man did not really want to learn to play the piano, or he would have paid the honest price. And, having done so, he would then enjoy such recognition that comes from honest accomplishment.

    If I were a young person with a desire to carve a career today in one of the artistic fields, I would first place myself under the direction of a talented and skillful teacher in that art—whether it be music, drama, painting, dance, or whatever. After practicing vigorously at the fundamental techniques of my art for quite some time, perhaps several years, I would talk face to face and heart to heart with this teacher about his appraisal of my progress. If he really knows his business, he can tell me what to expect in the way of competition and public acceptance. If he is honest, he will tell me my strong points and my weaknesses. He will tell me the prospects of developing professional competence in the time left before I am dependent upon that competence to earn a living. And, if I am honest, I will listen and learn.

    What are some of the artistic areas where young people can earn a living? Let us start with music. The largest markets are in entertainment and teaching. To entertain, one must be extremely clever and competent in performance before audiences. Instrumentalists usually get started in dance orchestras and fees range from a few dollars to a union scale of $20.00 to $30.00 per night or much higher in name bands. This type of career usually involves much traveling and often requires working hours that interfere with a good home life and full Church activity. The glamour of a name in bright lights can soon fade with the drudgery of one-night stands and the carousing of associates. Not all performers are ultimately disappointed. Some build fame and fortunes. Likewise, some people find gold mines and oil wells. Most do not. Dance band careers are usually means to an end, not an end in themselves.

    In the teaching profession one usually aims at a school or a private studio career. The school offers regular employment on contract. The studio offers opportunity to build a private class and eventually a master class. Some teachers achieve fame first as recognized artists and then retire to teaching. Their incomes vary from two or three dollars a lesson to school salaries of $5,000 to $20,000 per year. The familiar classification of classic and popular musician distinguishes those who perform the great musical literature from those who are skilled in entertainment styles. The illusion that all one has to do is pick a pop name and make a hit record is the same illusion that all one has to do to get rich is to marry or inherit a fortune. The chances are rare, and the rewards are often fleeting. The most successful people in music professionally are those who spend a lifetime perfecting their artistic skills and are willing to work very hard at both teaching and performance. The thrill of making music has to supply much of the compensation when dollars are few or uncertain.

    In painting, drawing, and related graphic arts, a young person of talent usually gets started by drawing posters and making layouts of programs and other publications. Such skills are taught in good university or high school commercial art classes. Fees range from a few dollars for a specific piece of art to permanent employment in an advertising agency or in a company that uses art, such as a retail store, a sign shop, a publication office, or a studio. The skillful commercial artist (this really includes anyone who sells art) no longer needs to starve in an attic. Competent people earn from $5,000 to $40,000 a year. Men of great reputation do much better, but such careers are like stars in any profession. All aspire, few arrive. Many art students find a specialty that can provide both an artistic outlet and a decent living. A few persist in striving for a personal reputation that commands high fees. One generally ends up doing that in which he is most competent and in which he finds recognition and compensation.

    In the drama field—with associated arts of radio announcing and directing amateur plays—the young person must first gain skill and confidence. These come from much participation in the finest dramatic casts available. Also, the person must be willing to practice speech articulation, learn dialects, and memorize many roles. Some aspiring dramatists find that the technical theater is more available for careers. Here, people make costumes, handle make-up, lighting, scene construction, or do similar work. A few discover that the really high incomes await those who can manage theatrical productions and make them pay. The business of show business is often overlooked because of the glamorous tinsel of the show itself. Entering this business varies with every person. Some start in the box office and learn what people like. Others paint scenes backstage. Others start with bit parts and work up to full roles. Some write and direct plays, TV shows, and radio programs. As a career, there are many uncertainties in the theater and few jobs that one could call permanent. Teaching in schools and coaching amateur performances afford the same securities as other teaching positions and often provide both income and expressive outlets to those who “just love the stage.”

    In all of the arts the creative person will find his way to attract a clientele. He will make his way up the ladder, step by step. And, he will begin with step one, which is to learn fundamentals and do them exceedingly well. Those who want to start at the top and climb from there usually miss the next step and fall to the bottom. Experienced professionals don’t make this mistake. I once invited a top Hollywood actor to take a leading role in a large theatrical I was producing, and he declined, saying, “If I leave here, there are 10,000 who want my next assignment, and when I return, I can expect to start again at the end of the line.” Those who paint a rosy picture of a swift ascent to stardom usually deceive rather than inform.

    In all artistic endeavor, sincerity, solid technical skill, and much experience are needed to succeed. From there you climb the mountain step by step, always preparing for a more difficult assignment and seizing every opportunity to excel.

    Photo by Mrs. Ben Bloxham

    Photo by Ted Evans (contest winner)