There's a post over at Anesthesioboist that has a lively discussion about what people (mostly MDs, it seems) would like to do as alternative professions. This started me thinking about my experience as a working musician and my experience in what I used to call the "real world," or think of as "everything else."
Not that I ever got to the point where I made more money than it took simply make ends meet, but I was able to work exclusively in music during my years at Juilliard and a couple of years after graduation, when I lived outside of the U.S. The early 1980s was a time when musical work was really scarce here. When I returned to the US in 1982, shows in New York were saving money by using synthesizers rather than musicians, and the very small amount of flute work was held onto by a few people who spent many years developing the kinds of relationships that flutists need to develop in order to get work. The work situation was even worse in Boston, where I went to typing school, and decided that I would try to get work in "the real world." In order to get a job with a temporary agency in Boston in the 1980s, you had to be able to type if you were a woman. In order to learn how to type quickly, I had to learn how, and, like anything else, I had to practice daily for a while. That was not unusual in my experience. I understood how to practice, and I learned quickly. Intelligence and education didn't matter in typing school. I was functionally bi-lingual when I went to typing school, and I wasn't the only functionally bi-lingual person in my class.
I passed my typing test, and I went to work for a temporary agency. Unfortunately I wasn't able to use my typing skills for my first job. The job was a filing job, and me and my Ph.D. in economics candidate filing partner set out on our huge task with dedication. I noticed that none of the people, particularly the "support staff" in this engineering firm seemed to be very dedicated to their work. They arrived late to work, and they left early. They didn't seem to care that their filing system was totally screwed up, and the engineers didn't seem to care either. My first dose of the "real world" was that people, for the most part, don't take their work as seriously as musicians take their work.
Musicians (at least those who work) always show up on time. If a musician doesn't show up on time (which usually means a little early) for a rehearsal or for a concert, the other musicians fear the worst: an accident, terrible sickness, or maybe death. Musicians who want to continue to work always come to rehearsals with their music prepared. That usually means that in order to prepare for a 2.5 hour rehearsal, that musician has put in anywhere between 4 and 60 or more hours of practice (over several days or weeks, and sometimes over a professional lifetime), depending on the difficulty of the part or the familiarity with the piece.
String players can be covered up if they make mistakes or if they play a few notes out of tune. Wind, brass, and percussion players cannot. They can have a bad day, but they still have to count and come in at the right time, and they have to play the right notes in tune. If they don't, even in rehearsal, everyone knows it. Their reputations are always on the line. Good wind, brass, and percussion players carry a lot of pressure on their shoulders, but they often do their best not to let on how hard they work, or how much it matters to them to play well.
Even though the pay is often pretty low, musicians cannot afford to lose work. The phrase "change jobs" was one that I heard among my support staff peers around Boston. Musicians don't change jobs. They do look for more work, and some people are lucky enough to play great auditions and get better-paying jobs with better orchestras in exciting cities, but your run of the mill "rank and file" (yes, string players who are not in leadership positions are referred to as rank and file players) musician who is not motivated to take difficult auditions is going to stay pretty much where s/he is, if there is work. That means that musicians have to get along with their co-workers, and their team of co-workers remains pretty much the same, with "new blood" thrown in as people graduate from music schools and enter the working world of music.
In my neck of the Midwestern woods, most of the musicians have "day jobs." Some are teaching jobs in music, and some are jobs further out in the "real world." Some people (like me) rely on their spouse's job to pay the bulk of the bills. Most working musicians don't complain about their lot in life, because it is their life of choice.