The Wisdom of Rilke: Should I devote my education to the study of an art form that may or may not pay the bills?


As a professor of music at a music school, one topic that is near to my heart is the question of whether the study of music is a viable choice for young people entering college. When I was a student entering music school as a composition major, I had a wonderful introduction to the subject by Dr. Nelson Keyes, the professor who conducted my entrance and scholarship auditions. After determining that I met the requirements for entrance to the program and even a modest scholarship, he then spent the next 30 minutes informing me of what he considered the right and wrong reasons to pursue the course of study that I had applied to.

In a nutshell, he told me that I should not enter this course of study if I was interested in fame, or posterity, or even count on using it to pursue consistent gainful employment. He told a number of stories about the hardships that famous composers had endured in pursuit of their craft, with many living and dying in relative or actual poverty and becoming famous only after they were gone. He talked about how hard a composer’s life was, and detailed many of the challenges that the study of this art would place in my path if I chose to pursue it. It seemed almost as though he, a composer who had pursued his dream, was trying to talk me out of pursuing my dream right at the point where I was about to begin a journey toward it.

At the time, I thought this ritual a bit odd. After all, didn’t the school want passionate students in their program, and didn’t it need bodies filling the seats of its classrooms? But he seemed sincere, and obviously felt that this was a necessary step in the journey, so I listened intently an answered the questions he asked me. The truth was, I hadn’t really given much thought to what I was going to do with the degree when I was done, and didn’t frankly much care about that. Life is short, I – in my infinite wisdom of 21 years – said, and better to go for what you want while you can than wake up in your 50’s (the age he was then, and ironically also the age I am now as I write this) wishing you had done so when you had the chance. At this answer, he smiled ruefully and welcomed me to his studio. I have a feeling that there was a lot more behind that smile than I could understand at the time, but that may be a projection on my part.

In my time as a professor advising students who are considering various music degree programs, I have had occasion to think about the above many times, and I have always tried to remember and pass on the basic lessons I learned from that experience. In short, there are basically three categories of music degrees and the student who pursue them who would pass Nelson’s test of “should I devote my life to the study of my art?”; I will attempt to detail them below.

  • Professional music degree programs: At our school, there are basically two degree programs that prepare students for fields in which there are actual realistic employment opportunities that could constitute a living wage while working in music – music education, and music therapy. Both programs are hybrids of a sort in that the study of the music itself is only a part of the overall study of the applied craft in the field. Students study the basics of music – theory, history, literature, and applied instrumental study – within a larger framework of passing through requirements and guidelines that the field requires to qualify to work in it. Though very competitive, a student who truly wants to work in one of these fields is making a very reasonable choice by enrolling in a degree program for it, since the employment sought is contingent on the certification that the degree provides and includes.
  • Intensive music degrees taken together with a second degree in a professional field: For a number of especially bright, forward thinking, and mature students, this option is also viable. In my time I have seen students take performance degrees alongside degrees in professional fields like pre-med, pre-law, engineering, and even astro physics. It obviously takes a special kind of discipline to manage two such degrees, but for these students the reward is worth the hardship. They know that they will not likely be able to make a living doing the thing they love in music, but they also feel that life would be barren without exploring it in depth. So they make a choice to do both, thinking ahead to the day when they will have not only a way to make a living in the world, but also a beautiful craft to pursue in whatever time is left; in addition, they will have built a foundation of knowledge and skill to fuel this journey, and will be able to enjoy it simply for its own sake without the stress of asking it to provide for their financial needs.
  • Music degrees taken simply out of passion for the subject: These degree programs – like composition, performance, theory, and history – may provide a few jobs in higher education or in an ever dwindling number of professional ensembles, but it’s a well known secret that there are far more graduates than jobs in these fields. Since this is the case, these students – often the most musically passionate that I encounter – would be well served to examine their passion for the art form they love in the context of the world that they will enter upon graduation.

It may well be that their passion for their art outweighs the practical concerns they may have regarding physical and financial survival in the future. Or it may be that they are simply so engrossed in their desire to learn, improve, and ultimately master their craft that they haven’t yet taken the time to weigh these considerations. Often, the truth is some combination of the two. Either way, when I meet these students during the application process I am always reminded of Nelson Keyes’ insistence on bringing these matters up right at the beginning of the student’s journey, and I try to follow through in a similar fashion now that the shoe is on the other foot.

For what it’s worth, that shoe often feels a few sizes too big as I sit across from a bright eyed student who is itching to begin their journey at all costs. What words do I have that could get through to a person as in love with their craft and as determined as this?

Fortunately, I do not have to rely on my own words any longer. Recently I was rereading an old favorite book entitled Letters to a Young Poet, a collection of letters that poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote in 1903 to an aspiring poet who wrote to him asking for advice. In Rilke’s response, I recognized a beautiful and poetic paraphrase of the essential meaning of Nelson Keyes’ words to me over 30 years ago. Because they are so eloquent, I will let them speak for themselves, with the single caveat that the wide eyed student substitute the appropriate verb signifying the action of their craft wherever Rilke uses the word “write”. The passages quoted are excerpts from the first letter. I hope that anyone in need of their wisdom will be open enough to hear it; I can’t imagine any words expressing the meaning better:

There is only one way: Go within. Search for the cause, find the impetus that bids you write. Put it to this test: Does it stretch out its roots in the deepest place of your heart? Can you avow that you would die if you were forbidden to write? Above all, in the most silent hour of your night, ask yourself this: Must I write? Dig deep into yourself for a true answer. And if it should ring its assent, if you can confidently meet this serious question with a simple, “I must,” then build your life upon it. It has become your necessity. Your life, in even the most mundane and least significant hour, must become a sign, a testimony to this urge.

            If, as a result of this turning inward, of this sinking into your own world, poetry should emerge, you will not think to ask someone whether it is good poetry. And you will not try to interest publishers of magazines in these works. For you will hear in them your own voice; you will see in them a piece of your life, a natural possession of yours. A piece of art is good if it is born of necessity. This, its source, is its criterion; there is no other.

Therefore, my dear friend, I know of no other advice than this: Go within and scale the depths of your being from which your very life springs forth. At its source you will find the answer to the question, whether you must write. Accept it, however it sounds to you, without analyzing. Perhaps it will become apparent to you that you are indeed called to be a writer. Then accept that fate; bear its burden, and its grandeur, without asking for the reward, which might possibly come from without. For the creative artist must be a world of his own and must find everything within himself and in nature, to which he has betrothed himself.

It is possible that, even after your descent into your inner self and into your secret place of solitude, you might find that you must give up becoming a poet. As I have said, to feel that one could live without writing is enough indication that, in fact, one should not. Even then this process of turning inward, upon which I beg you to embark, will not have been in vain. Your life will no doubt from then on find its own paths. That they will be good ones and rich and expansive—that I wish for you more than I can say.

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