In a recent Facebook Q&A, James Taylor fielded this question from fellow choral director Abby Arenstam. Enjoy his response! (emphasis mine)
I am a public school chorus teacher. If you had advice for my students who want to a pursue a career in music what would that advice be?
Well, Abby, to start with, you’re my hero and I just thank you and commend you because I love choral music! I love arranging voices, I love working with voices. I have a group of four fantastic singers that I routinely take on the road with me and that record with me, and the arrangements that we come up with are to me the real delight. I thank you and congratulate you on being a choral teacher.
What advice would I have? I think that no matter what, you need a musical instrument. If you’re a singer and you want to communicate with other musicians, you need to get an instrument. IMO, you should study guitar or piano because it’s gonna be of huge value to you in communicating with other musicians and also in developing your own voice. If you don’t have an instrument, get one. Learn keyboard or guitar, something that you can accompany yourself on.
The other thing is, if you want to make a career of it and not just do it for your own enjoyment (which of course is certainly enough), you’re going to need to start making music in front of other people.
You should keep your overhead small and simple. Try and live within your means. I don’t know really how to advise people in this day & age. It used to be that to find a way forward, you had to have a record contract, but that’s no longer necessary and in some cases no longer feasible. Record companies no longer work with people the way they were supposed to.
Avoid a major drug habit. Avoid having children before you’re ready to settle down, avoid a lot of debt, because those are the things that are going to get you waylaid.
Try to find a a way to make music with other musicians as well. Joining forces with others, whether you’re writing songs or whether you’re trying to make music, it’s great to join forces with other people.
That’s all I can suggest, and some of it is just general advice for young people.
To recap: have an instrument. If you’re a vocalist, study piano or guitar so you have a way to communicate with other musicians. Get your music in front of an audience whenever you can. Seek out other musicians and make music with them. The rest is just advice for young people on how not to fall into servitude.
And again, thank you for being a music teacher.