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  • Becky Pepper

10 Things I've Learned Over the Last 10 Years

Updated: Oct 22, 2021

This originally started out as an article called "10 Things I've learned this year" encompassing the year after I graduated from music college. That year was 2012-2013, so yes, technically that was not quite a full decade ago but, "10 things I've Learned over the last 8 1/2 years" didn't have the same ring to it.


The article was originally intended for the Glissando magazine, founded by legendary brass band trombonist, Brett Baker, and for the few years it ran I was the reviews and content editor and occasional contributor. However, this one never made the final cut. I never finished it because, well, life and therefore the content of the article got a bit too real. I felt I was painting all to bleak a picture of how hard life is as a recent music graduate and felt I couldn’t put people off forever! Plus, I was aware I was becoming jaded and cynical, which is not the impression of myself I wanted to put out.


At nearly a decade later, do these things that were revelations to me after entering the real world from institutionalised student life still have relevance? Would I still tell my students leaving college the same things? Have I learned anything new? Me from 2012:


So here are the 10 things:


1. It’s tougher being a graduate than a student

2. Everything is going to change

3. You have to decide what you really want to do then run with it

4. Opportunities don’t come and find you, you have to look for them

5. Think like a musician always

6. Surround yourself with the right people

7. Keep fit

8. Find a passion that isn’t music

9. Integrity is everything – accept what you can’t do well

10. Never stop practicing or learning


Wow. I feel quite smug that I was so wise at the tender age of 22, but also looking back, I was so bad at taking my own advice. How often is that true? We read books and ask people for advice but implementing it is the hard thing. I wish I had known that at the time and known I was heading in the right direction. So, let’s get into it:


1. It’s tougher being a graduate than a student


Here’s what I wrote in 2013:


“Student life isn’t nearly as bad as you think! When you graduate obviously you say goodbye to your loan but also to that 10% student discount, preferential ticket prices, union rates and travel cards and hello to a council tax bill (£1,120 per year for an average 3 bedroom house in Birmingham), national insurance contributions (these are what entitle you to benefits and build up to your national retirement pension) and if you’re lucky enough to earn over the personal allowance, income tax.


I thought this was an article about starting your career as a trombonist, I hear you cry. I know this is starting to sound more like a tax exam but if you are going to be a self-employed freelancer it really pays to know this stuff. You do not want to be paying an accountant’s professional fees to do your tax return, and if you don’t declare income, you can end up getting fined. Do not fear, if you are a member of the ISM or MU, they both run seminars and have loads of useful and performer/teacher specific finance information for their members on their websites. Most music colleges are wising up to the fact that we might need these skills in life now too, so don’t skip or sleep through these lectures! They become very real very quickly.”


Money, money, money. Wouldn’t life as a musician (or any creative) be great if money wasn’t a thing. But it is, and I’m still rubbish at it, and I would tell 22-year-old Becky to skill-up earlier and be more organised. 10 years on, I’m getting there. Doing taxes and budgeting are easily learnable skills if you just take the time to keep track of everything.


Definitely conservatoires are paying more attention to admin and marketing skills and the general business side of being a musician in their undergrad courses. For us it was more “here’s the arts job website” and “how to write a CV” before being flown out into the great wide world. This just left me hungry for more knowledge and I discovered so much doing my own research online and in the library (what’s that again?). The union was indeed a pool of support, for all things musical but I would tell 22-year-old Becky to ask for help more on the life skills rather than just focusing on the career. Running a home is hard work!


Is it tougher being a graduate than a student? Yes, initially. But after that you become more confident in your ability to get by and grow as an individual into your adult life. With life you often find jobs, experiences and best of all, relationships that are better than student life.


2. Everything is going to change


“So just accept that now. The worst thing about leaving college is not knowing what’s going to happen next. In college, you know exactly when the next technical or orchestral audition is. When you leave each year, you know when and where you’ll be back in September. You know the ramifications of your actions; what happens if you fail, or do well, or act out or follow a set line, it all plays out. Now you are faced with the harsh reality that anything could happen. You could get work literally anywhere in the world and that is a prospect that is becoming more and more likely if you want to solely perform.”


Another one that resonates hard. Can you see why I got depressed writing this the first time!? But what 22-year-old Becky didn’t understand was that change is part of the human experience and inevitable. Of course, graduating is one of those times in life that are a pivotal moment, but I would tell myself that you have more control and choice than you think you do.


I didn’t realise it at the time, when I was frantically applying for orchestral and band auditions across Europe and Asia (there were none in the UK at that time!) that I had already decided in my heart that I wanted to stay in the UK. If I had been brutally honest with myself, I knew from the age of 15, when I first picked up the trombone and joined the County Youth Orchestra, that I wanted to have a portfolio career and that any one type of performance or musical job wouldn’t satisfy me. 22-year-old me had forgotten this and fell into the binary performer/teacher narrative, bringing myself down for not finding/chasing/winning the performing jobs and burning myself out doing every type of teaching possible just to make money in music.


I am still recovering from being institutionalised in music and beginning to realise that I am the master of my own destiny, at least to a certain degree. But I am very blessed to now be starting to realise that dream of variety, without selling myself short.


3. You have to decide what you really want to do then run with it


I didn’t write anything for the next few points in 2013. But if I had maybe I’d have realised my own advice from above about wanting to have a portfolio career. Also, I would tell 22-year-old Becky that there is no shame in having a “day job” to pay the bills and honestly, I wish I had done this as I would have had a much better chance at keeping my creativity going without the panic for income. At the time the western world was just about starting to recover from the 2007/8 recession and jobs weren’t the easiest to find. A lot of places looked at my CV and assumed I’d leave soon to become a “full time teacher”, so wouldn’t offer me a position. Underconfident and weary, I gave up trying. Again, if I knew what I know now about industries outside of music, I would have known where to look.


4. Opportunities don’t come and find you, you have to look for them


With the rise of social media, this is, I would argue a little bit easier for graduates now, as previously we relied on going to events and networking to meet fellow musicians. Of course, there is no substitute for showing up, being seen and having in-person meetings but if the pandemic has showed us anything, it’s that meaningful connection is possible via the internet.


I knew in 2013 that I needed the ‘press kit’. The thing of the time was business cards (!) and a personal website, listed on the card. I went to all the union and college networking and social events and conferences like a good little postgrad. However, I was chronically shy, so bad at selling myself as I always had this fear of sounding like I was being very boastful and arrogant. I would never ask an established musician for anything that would be called work for fear of being called a brown-nose or being perceived by them as one. It was horrible and felt so icky and inauthentic.


I am pleased to say 10 years on that I have grown the confidence to ask people for their advice and reach out to fellow musicians, even if I feel they are ‘on a pedestal’ above me. Often that is only a barrier in my head and even the titans of our industry are people too, that 90% of the time want to help and make more music. The absolute worst that can happen is they say no or don’t reply, so there’s nothing to lose. I’m still working on the ‘selling myself’ part. I feel is a hang-up of the old British attitude of you turn up you play you leave, and the music speaks for you but honestly, this is nonsense because who have you ever remembered that way?!


5. Think like a musician always


I think what I meant by this was don’t lose focus or identity as a musician. Honestly, I can’t remember. But over the course of the pandemic, many of us in the creative industries, for whom all the work suddenly stopped had to to take a long hard look at themselves and ask, “who am I if I am not being a musician?”. Graduating is another one of those existential crisis moments in life, but again, you have a choice and certainly I had more options available to me as a musician in 2013 than I did in 2020!


I like to think it was about approaching problems creatively and utilising your skills as a musician in other aspects of your life and work, as well as avoiding being sucked into a ‘corporate’ lifestyle. Honestly, I think 22-year-old Becky probably did attach too much of her identity to being a successful musician. Luckily, over the pandemic when I did find myself at a musical loose end, I rediscovered my passion for practising and on my own agenda, as well as creating the online resources and arrangements I hadn’t previously had time to do. It was comforting to know that the passion and desire was till there even without the hustle.


6. Surround yourself with the right people


Oh Becky. This one is really tough too. At the time I thought it was all about ‘networking’ and having ‘connections’ but as I stated earlier even when I did put myself out there, I was too scared to bother the big people in industry and so I clung to people who were in my eyes successful, even though I changed myself to try and fit in with what I thought people were looking for. So yes, surround yourself with the right people. People who see you for who you are and don’t expect you to be any more or any less. People who build you up and you are happy to build up too because you are happy and proud of them, not envious and in their shadows.


7. Keep fit


“If, like me, you didn’t exactly adopt the healthiest of lifestyles whilst a student, now is the time to address that.”


I mean, this is just good advice for anyone. We know so much better now the benefits to our mental as well as physical health. At college I took Physio classes with a wonderful lady called Trudi, and I think these stopped my body giving up completely. This was an optional elective and moreover, seen as a slightly “hippy” or “alternative”. Thank goodness this has changed over the last 10 years! We also had access to performance coaching for performance related anxiety. I tried this but felt so frustrated because although I didn’t know it at the time, I had mental health problems, not performance anxiety at all. Unfortunately, mental health wasn’t really something that was considered very much back then. I hope graduates today are a lot more aware of the potential pitfalls of stress and anxiety and know that help is available.


After college I rather lacked the willpower to make exercise regular but found I did enjoy going to the gym and I also got back into swimming, which I had been competitive at in school. I’m not so active now, but this is something I want to address, and I got into yoga online during the pandemic (who didn’t?) and loved it as it was very reminiscent of the Taiichi we had done in those physio classes.


8. Find a passion that isn’t music


“…Otherwise you will go mad! Also, as in any walk of life if you cannot switch off from ‘the job’ you will end up a very one-dimensional person. Bad for you and even worse for your creativity. No one wants to hear a flat and soulless performance however many hours you’ve put into the technical passages or how many recordings you’ve listened to and analysed. Of course, I’m not saying not to do these things, they are important but you cant just be a trombonist, you have to be yourself and you do that by being different to everyone else out there. What makes you tick? Find something that is purely fun and do it once or twice every week. Again I must clarify. I love music, playing and teaching the trombone. It’s amazing to call that my career but since it pays the bills it is no longer a frivolous and entirely carefree pastime. Find something that is – baking, cycling, photography, fashion it doesn’t matter.”


Again, 22-year-old Becky why didn’t you take your own advice?! This is so important, and many teachers and scientists now boast the importance of being “bad” at something to boost skills and confidence in other areas of life. I don’t really care for baking, cycling, photography (beyond iphone snap and insta) or fashion – why did I write these things?! I knew life experience was important, I was just too scared to go out and get any! Also, after four years of hustling, being one dimensional and trying to fit in, I wasn’t 100% sure what I was into anymore. This has been a long healing process, but I know my passions outside of music and that give me equal joy are my husband, travelling and animals and nature. I’ve always loved animals and as a child wanted to study to be a vet. I love my pets very much, in all their furry, scaly, and slimy splendour and am fascinated by their different biology and behaviour. I volunteer at a riding stable where I get to indulge my passion for horses and be near a pet I can’t afford for myself. I didn’t know how important travel and adventure were in my life until a certain pandemic took it from me, and I know I won’t ever take it for granted again. I recently started learning how to shoot (clay pigeons only!) and I am learning to manage my frustration when I’m bad it and enjoy it for the experience.


9. Integrity is everything – accept what you can’t do well


Integrity is important, but I think this is more about finding your niche. Knowing your own strengths and weaknesses and playing to that. It’s very tempting as a graduate to just grab at every available opportunity or piece of work, just because, even if it doesn’t align with your skills or values. This is where having a non-music job really helps. In 2013 and the few years that followed I did any number of soul-sucking teaching jobs, that I hated that were little more than babysitting for the class teacher whilst they did their planning. I think this added frustration when there were people turning up on gigs I did who were woefully bad musicians walking away with the same fee.


I now know if someone is a phony, they will be sniffed out. If a player or teacher can’t cut it, they won’t last long in the industry. Plus, no one wins when you devalue another musician’s craft and deny them a job and sell yourself short in the process.


10. Never stop practicing or learning


Possibly the most important thing of all. I think in another decade, I’ll still feel like I’m learning and in many ways, I hope I am. As Pablo Casals, the famous cellist said when he he was asked why he continued to practice for four hours a day, “Because I think I am making progress.”


Me from 2021:


I wish I could tell 22-year-old me, that whilst it’s not perfect (and it never will be) life in a decade’s time is wonderful. Sure, you will live through some crazy world events (2016 is a doozy – Brexit and Trump anyone?), including the summer of four terrorist attacks on London, and a pandemic but you also have some of the best times of your life. You are very happily married to your best friend. You get to travel the world – you will see Chicago Symphony Orchestra at the Symphony Centre and Ariana Grande at the Sprint centre, Kansas. You will become a published author. You will discover a passion for theme parks and ride some of the best rollercoasters in the world. You will finally learn how to build a website and grow the confidence to ‘put yourself out there’ and you will become a featured artist for one of the best instrument makers in the world.


But the biggest advice I’d send to 22-year-old Becky is: You are not alone. Everyone who graduates from music college has been through these experiences and whilst everyone’s story is different, we can all help each other navigate the new territory together. Your teachers went through this before you and your students will after you. The world changes (I’d never have thought I’d be an active Instagram user for work in 2013 – TikTok who?) but the challenges and obstacles remain the same at their core.


Speak up, reach out and be kind. Our industry is tough enough as it is.


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